Myth of the Rise

If you believe Earth was created as a paradise meant to remain perfect, but made imperfect by human wickedness, every flaw will be viewed as an example of corruption that should never have happened.

If you believe Earth was created brutal but has over time raised itself out of brutality in a semi-steady process of development toward something better, every flaw can be viewed as a project for improvement.

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Some people look at the United States of America as a place where the Civil Rights Movement was able to happen, and this is one more reason to honor and love it.

Some people look at the United States of America as a place where the Civil Rights Movement was needed to rectify inexcusable injustices, and this is one more reason to despise and condemn it.

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I have always instinctively disliked the myth of the Fall.

Last week’s pasha was Bereshit. (Happy Simchat Torah.) The rabbi who facilitated Torah Study commented that Judaism has never read the story of the Edenic exile as a catastrophe or a matter of regret. For Judaism, the book of Genesis is stage setting for the main act, Exodus: a story of liberation from bondage, a cause for perpetual celebration.

Two points of departure: an Exile and an Exodus.

Two trajectories: a Fall and a Rise.

My faith feels truth in a myth of the Rise.

 

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Bernard Loomer

From Bernard Loomer’s “Two Conceptions of Power”:

The world of the individual who can be influenced by another without losing his or her identity or freedom is larger than the world of the individual who fears being influenced. The former can include ranges and depths of complexity and contrast to a degree that is not possible for the latter. The stature of the individual who can let another exist in his or her own creative freedom is larger than the size of the individual who insists that others must conform to his own purposes and understandings.

Under the relational conception of power what is truly for the good of any one or all of the relational partners is not a preconceived good. The true good is not a function of controlling or dominating influence. The true good is an emergent from deeply mutual relationships.

Perfect. I’m going to read as much Loomer as I can.

This concept of linear/unilateral power and relational power is going to be valuable.

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Ancestors and siblings of process thought

While I’m scanning passages from C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, here are two more that inspired me.

The first passage appeals to my designer consciousness:

Descartes was wrong in his basic dualism. The world is not composed of substances or of two kinds of substances. There is, however, what David Ray Griffin calls an “organizational duality.” Descartes was correct that rocks and chairs and other large physical objects do not have minds, while humans do. In Whiteheadian terms, rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them. In living organisms, however, there can be varying degrees to which the organism is structured to give rise to a single series of feelings that can function to direct the organism as a whole. We can see fairly clearly that at least higher animals like chimps and dogs have a psyche (mind or soul) chat is in many ways like our own. This psyche draws experience from the whole body (with varying degrees of directness and clarity), often crossing a threshold into some degree of consciousness, and is able in turn to use that awareness to direct the organism toward actions that help it to survive and achieve some enjoyment of life. The self, or soul, then is not something separate from the body. It arises out of the life of the body, especially the brain.

The mind/soul/psyche is the flow of the body’s experience. Yet your body produces a unique mind that is also able to have experiences reaching beyond those derived directly from the body. We can think about philosophy, love, mathematics, or death in abstract conceptual ways that are not merely physical perceptions. Without the body, there would be no such flow of experience, but with a properly organized body, there can be a flow of experience that moves beyond purely bodily sensation. Furthermore, your mind can clearly interact with your body so that you can move, play, eat, hug, and work. There is a kind of dualism here in that the mind is not only the body but it is, in Griffin’s phrase, a hierarchical dualism rather than a metaphysical one. There are not two kinds of substances — minds and bodies. There is one kind of reality — experience. But experience has both its physical and mental aspects.

To my ears, this is a beautiful dovetail joint waiting to be fitted to extended cognition. “Rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them” but if a human organizes those rocks in particular ways, for instance drilling and shaping them into abacus beads, or melting them down to manufacture silicon chips, those rocks can be channeled into extended cognitive systems which in a very real way become extensions of our individual and collective minds. It is ironic to me that even at this exact instance, in typing out this sentence, a thought is forming before my eyes with the help of rocks reorganized as silicon chips which are participating in the “having” of this very thought. And if anyone is reading this and understanding it, my thought, multi-encoded, transmitted, decoded and interpreted by your own intelligence — rocks have helped organize this event of understanding! Humans help organize more and more of the “inanimate” world into participants of experience.

And now we are wading out into the territory developed by Actor-Network Theory, which asks, expecting intricately branching detailed answers: How do humans and non-humans assemble themselves into societies? I think the commonality within these harmoniously similar thought programs is their common rootedness in Pragmatism. It is no accident that Richard J. Bernstein saw pragmatism as a constructive way out of  the unbridled skeptical deconstruction of post-modernism, and that Whitehead, who acknowledged a debt to Pragmatism, is said to offer a constructive postmodernism.

The second passage appeals to my newly Jewish hermeneutic consciousness. This is a quote by Whitehead:

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.

This, of course, is a description of the hermeneutic circle, the concept that we understand parts in terms of the concepts by which we understand them, but that our concepts are often modified (or replaced) in the effort to subsume recalcitrant parts. We tack between focusing on the details and (to the degree we are reflective) revisiting how we are conceptualizing those details. These are the two altitudes Whitehead mentions: an on-the-ground investigation of detail and a sky-view survey of how all those details fit together.

This is an ancient analogy. The Egyptians made the ibis, an animal with a head like a snake (the lowest animal) and the body of a bird (the highest animal) the animal of Thoth, their god of writing, the Egyptian analogue to Hermes. Nietzsche also used this image in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and that is where I first encountered it.

An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck. “These are my animals,” said Zarathustra and was happy in his heart. “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun — they have gone out on a search. They want to determine whether Zarathustra is still alive. Verily, do I still live? I found life more dangerous among men than among animals; on dangerous paths walks Zarathustra. May my animals lead me!” When Zarathustra had said this he recalled the words of the saint in the forest, sighed, and spoke thus to his heart: “That I might be wiser! That I might be wise through and through like my serpent! But there I ask the impossible: so I ask my pride that it always go along with my wisdom. And when my wisdom leaves me one day — alas, it loves to fly away — let my pride then fly with my folly.”

And I have seen the Star of David as an image of the synthesis of atomistic ground-up and holistic sky-down understandings. And this is one reason I chose Nachshon (“snakebird”) as my Hebrew name when I converted to Judaism.

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(Eventually, I’ll have to try to connect process thought with my extremely simplistic and possibly distorted understanding of chaos theory. Eventually.)

Posted in ANT, Design, Fables, myths & parables, Hermeneutics, Holism, Judaism, Symbols and diagrams | Leave a comment

We make ourselves out of each other

From C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy:

Occasionally I have the pleasure of performing a wedding ceremony. As a process-relational thinker, I have something I want to say about human relationships in general, and marriage in particular. As John B. Cobb Jr. wisely observed, a soul is not a thing. It is not an isolated stone hidden somewhere inside us untouched by our life’s experience, enduring unchanged by the changes of our lives. A soul is a dynamic process, a bundle of experiences, thoughts, emotions, dreams, and memories. In each moment of our life, we take in all of our past experience and all of our new experiences, and we create our selves out of them, deciding who we will be in that moment.

Two people who join in marriage will be creating themselves out of each other and out of their relationship. Each word, each glance, each touch, each kiss, each shared moment, each thought about each other — everything they do will become part of the material out of which they will create themselves. They will gradually discover that they have literally become parts of each other, parts of each others’ souls. They should have a special care, then, how they treat each other, have a care what material they each give to the other for the creation of their souls.

Obviously, a relational vision of the human soul confirms and helps to clarify our special obligations to children. A child’s soul is not a supernatural Cartesian substance “which so exists that it needs no other thing in order to exist.” I’m sure Descartes never meant to suggest this, but if he were right about mental substances, it would seem to follow that it would not matter what experiences a child had. Whippings, cigarette burns, dark closets, verbal humiliation like “you’re garbage and you always will be garbage” would just be so many accidental qualities that would come and go without changing that unchanging substance. But we know better. Process-relational thought offers us a vision of reality that helps us to understand what we all deeply know to be true. Sadly, as well as happily, we know that children must create themselves out of their relationships. They create themselves out of the genes and the nutrition and love, neglect, or cruelty they receive. They must create their souls out of the relationships they find themselves in. While there is some degree of self-creative freedom that often allows children to amaze us with their resilience, every person who has ever talked to me about the impact of abuse on them speaks of the deep scars they carry and will always carry. Children create their souls out of their relationships with us. Have a care: It matters what we give them to work with.

Exactly.

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The pain of non-response

When I attempt to communicate with people and get no response, I find it very painful.

Maybe I’ve just gotten sensitive about it and notice it more, but until a few years ago I do not recall speaking to people and being ignored, as if I hadn’t spoken. Now it happens frequently. By my understanding of manners this is appallingly rude, not only according to rules of etiquette but by universal human standards.

I have also noticed an increase in leaving electronic communications unacknowledged and unanswered. I don’t mean ignoring group emails or forwards or links. I mean ignoring personal messages.

I have been told many times by multiple people that this should not be taken personally and that I should not be offended. Cultural norms change, and that is fine. Joining in the hand-wringing over the change that is always happening only makes you bitter and keeps you stuck in the past. While I understand this argument, I find it unpersuasive, and, in fact, depressing. Common behaviors that begin to feel familiar, then acceptable, then normal do not automatically also become good. The belief that what becomes common also becomes good encourages us to abdicate our moral judgment.

I feel an urgent need to explain this pain, not only because pain by its nature seems to demand investigation into its causes, but, it appears to me that I find non-response more painful than most other people do, and I probably need to be able to explain why this is the case to others as well as myself. And maybe my explanation will inspire others to change their behaviors and their expectations of how others behave toward them.

This is my attempt at an explanation:

I think the pain of on-response is rooted in its deep moral ambiguity: it can mean many things, across a broad range of significance.

It can be purely accidental and insignificant. The attempt to communicate was not perceived. Or it can be a mostly innocent postponement or forgetting to respond, due to other more pressing things are going on. It can be an incapacity to respond, for reasons having nothing to do with the communication.

But crossing into the personal side of the spectrum of meanings, it can mean that the communication just isn’t seen as important enough to warrant a response. Or it can be an inability or unwillingness to respond for personal reasons, for instance feelings about the anticipated exchange. Or the silence might signal anger.

Or, worse, the non-response could be a sign of contempt. The contempt might be minor, for instance, a disregard for subjects or themes deemed unimportant. Or the contempt might be more serious: the speaker deserves no response. Or the contempt might be profoundly personal: the speaker is not worth the effort of a response.

The more the non-response is a pattern, the more likely the meaning of the silence falls somewhere on the contempt end of the spectrum. This is why non-response is offensive.

One of the key functions of manners is to keep alienating questions of these kinds from arising. Manners have us 1) signal our respect, and 2) offer explanations for behaviors that could be misinterpreted as disrespectful.

I do not believe the behavioral changes in response to the social media and rampant addiction to mobile devices are creating new norms of etiquette. I believe they are destroying manners and weakening human relationships. I believe general decay of manners (and in general of honoring social obligation) contributes to what some are calling a loneliness epidemic.

Respect is a fundamental human need, rooted in the affirmation that our existence is acknowledged and valued by the people around us. Social norms that allow us to disrespect others (even when that disrespect is not intended or felt as an emotion by the disrespectful) is creating a world that denies these fundamental human needs.

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Gatecrasher maxim

When I have a  metanoetic transformation that throws me into a new world of insight, I’ve learned to tell myself: “I am late to this party.”

A person who undergoes metanoetic transformation is truly “born again” in the sense that it is necessary to learn how to speak and act all over again, to flourish in this freshly newly-revealed world. We can still speak about the more primitive facts of our lives, but the things that matter are imprisoned in privacy. It takes humble and painstaking work to re-mature  after conversion. Most of all, this means re-overcoming the egoism of infancy. Inexperienced converts think they’ve become godlike seers of the re-creation of all that is, when in fact, they’re just babies who don’t understand how populous the world already is.

Growing up again after being born again, re-socializing ourselves, learning new language for new experiences and learning to communicate and build on our new communities allows us to repeat the process. Eventually, we get better at maturing a little quicker. That starts with assuming that surely someone got here earlier and starting a search for the others who already know instead of assuming the apparent ignorance we see around is real.

There is always a party if you want to find it. And wanting to find that party is morality itself.

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(Yes, “gate” is a Janus reference.)

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Rude tools

In my last post I promised that my next post would be “a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user.” and that I thought the issue of “‘ownership’ of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.”

This is that post.

My belief in the importance of resolving the issue of tool ownership hinges on a theory which I experience as true: Extended Cognition. According to wikipedia “Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism’s interaction with that environment. Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world.” The example offered to me by my friend Zach, who introduced this concept to me, was of doing addition with your fingers. Viewed through the lens of Extended Cognition the movement of the hand is part of the thinking that produces the result.

Where I experience this as most true is when I use tools that I’ve learned to use skillfully. That is, I’ve mastered them so fully that they more or less disappear as I use them. If we know how to use a pen, we no more need to think about using that pen while we are using it than we need to think about our hand. It becomes part of us, and it allows us to focus our attention on the thing we are doing, and to become absorbed in our activity.

This is true also of software tools — or at least well-designed ones. I am able to just concentrate on the content of our activity rather than the actions we I am trying to perform to reach my goal. Often I can’t even tell anyone how I do what my hands just know how to do. I have to demonstrate it.

How many times have you told someone you can show them how to do something on their computer of phone, but if you can just get your hands on the device you can show them what to do? Sometimes it’s not enough to see the screen. There must be concrete interaction.

This kind of knowing that seems to exist just in the body is known as tacit knowledge. I like to call the part of UI design that harnesses this tacit knowledge “the tacit layer.” Back when designers still liked to talk about “intuitive design” this awareness was much more prevalent. But I think this way of thinking about design is in decline.

Tools used largely in a tacit mode to develop ideas become an extensions of the user’s own being. To change a tool so that it stops functioning this way changes a person’s being. It literally prevents a person from thinking — it robs them of a piece of their own mind.

When we look at software in that light, doesn’t it seem like a norm that a company owns software, and that users pay a licensing fee for the right to use it offers far too little protection to the user? Shouldn’t users have more control over what is done to them?

I’m not suggesting a change in IP law or anything like that. I do think the software industry needs some different licensing arrangements, though.

 

 

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