Overweening Generalist

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On Uncertain, Vertiginous Feelings About the Infinite

We all have one or three or fourteen or "around seven" of those books that we are always returning to, year after year, sometimes almost every day, or at least once a fortnight. (Yes, I actually wrote "fortnight." I am trying to show you I also read 19th century English novels. - Editor) One of my problems may be that I have too many of these books. These are books that you keep by your bedside, but perhaps have another copy in your living room. You have perhaps lost a copy of one of these books and have replaced it. Possibly more than once. You have bought copies and given them as gifts, and maybe found out later that they were never read. These are your books. You love many other books, but these are the ones that have melded into your DNA somehow, they've had an almost demonic power over you at times; it seems that, though some of them may be less than 250 pages, their contents are, for you, inexhaustible. These books seem to pay dividends at a far higher rate than you ever imagined when you first picked them up; they are blue-chip stocks that go up in value every year, and you are comfortable with that aspect of opacity in the text, and I best get on with my topic here...

I was reading one of those books (for me) today: Science and Sanity: An Introduction To Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, by Alfred Korzybski. This book, for me, has it "all" (although Korzybski would remind me that we can never say "all" about anything!), but I will address this at length in some future outpouring in this space. Today I came across this passage, one of many golden ones:

"Two important characteristics of maps should be noticed. A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. If the map could be ideally correct, it would include, in a reduced scale, the map of the map; the map of the map, of the map; and so on, endlessly, a fact first noticed by Royce." (p.58)


Usually when I read this passage, the word "ideally" is the one that sets off my wonderment.

This time the name "Royce" caught me. He meant Josiah Royce, who grew up in 19th century California and studied at Berkeley when it was a tiny college, then he found his way to Germany, then  Harvard, where he was friends with William James even though they disagreed on almost everything.

Was Royce really the first to notice this? I spent well over two hours reading about Royce's logic, and who he was influenced by, who some of his influences were influenced by...suddenly I'm reading about Leibniz, and I've forgotten what I had set out to find in the first place! (Or had I rather accidentally enacted that experience of feeling like you're caught in something never-ending?)
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Borrowing from the phenomenologists, I choose to "bracket" Korzybski's claim about Royce; intuition tells me that maybe in Western formal logical systems within philosophy, Royce "first noticed" this aspect of the limitations of maps, but the feeling of boundlessness, limitlessness and infinity: I think most of us go into an altered state contemplating this as teenagers (or younger) at some point, don't we? 

I think how we react inwardly to this experience says much about our temperament or disposition toward the world, our own worlds. I highly suspect it says a lot about our subconscious approach to an epistemology, but I wonder if I can explain why...I'll have to think on it. Can I make it cohere in a blogpost? Can you? Or maybe you ain't buying this premise? 
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In the 20th century, Einstein showed that space and time were totally intertwined.  Kurt Godel proved formally that all formal systems were, perhaps "perfect" yet always incomplete. Even arithmetic was not a completely provable system unless you jumped outside that system to demonstrate this. But then you had to jump outside of that new system in order to "prove" that one, and on and on. Non-Aristotelian logics were developed, a few varieties of non-Euclidean geometries were found to have practical applications in the "real" world, and Heisenberg and Schrodinger developed totally different mathematical systems, at roughly the same time, in order to formally describe the surrealistic behavior of the quantum. New branches of mathematics dealt quite well with...chaos? Yes!

Cultural anthropologists, starting with Franz Boas and students like Benedict, Mead, and Kluckhohn, decided to live with people in far-flung areas of the globe, get to know their language, and as much about what it's like to "be" Inuit, or Trobriand Islander, or Pacific Northwest First Nation tribesmen. They wanted to make anthropology "scientific" (Boas had been a physicist). What they found was "culture shock," and that there were far, far more ways of "being" and making meaning in the world than they ever would have imagined. In the 20th century, anthropologists set out to meet the Other, and found...themselves!

In the 20th century, we found out we share about 96% of our DNA with chimpanzees. Freud, Jung, Adler, Reich, Leary, fMRI machines...Thick descriptions of who we are, how our minds work, how the brain works, actual pictures of real-time energy usage in parts of the brain...With Wittgenstein, Korzybski, Sapir, Whorf and many others, we found out that language seems far more fluid than we thought in 1900.

In 1900 some dreamers thought there might be other galaxies outside our Milky Way. Now we know there are billions of galaxies, and the ones furthest from us are moving away at the fastest rate...

You get the picture: At what point do YOU take all this in to a fairly sophisticated level and then say, "Okay, that was then. Maybe it was the brief window of time when we found out all the good stuff. Now we've pretty much got a handle on it. We just need to solve a few 'difficult' conundrums and cross some tees, dot some ayes...but we pretty much know all the big stuff now." 

If you go back to 1890, that was the prevalent thought in pretty much all areas. 

I don't buy it. I think we know about 1% of what there is to know, what human nervous systems are capable of knowing. We have a lot to learn. I find that exciting; others seem to find it repulsive and want to yell at me for assuming our almost total ignorance. Temperament!

But from what we learned during the Roaring 20th century, it's a groundless ground. Almost all of our knowledge seems contingent. We hypnotize ourselves into thinking things are on a rock-solid epistemological base, but when I remind myself that, when I walk to the fridge to get a beer - which I'm about to do - I am literally displacing atoms in the carpet and wood in the floor I walk on. That we are, in some sense, mostly empty space. That the word "up" has only the most restricted meaning in the world of relativity. That we made most of our world up, socially: religions, laws, cooking, economics, language, etc. And most of us, for probably hard-wired-by-evolution's sake, take this phenomenal world for granted.

But the taken-for-granted world is but one of our worlds. The infinite everywhen seems all around us. You can find it right where you are sitting now.

Or, as Stephen Dedalus says in the "Ithaca" section of James Joyce's Ulysses (another one of those books for me): all seems "ineluctably constructed upon the incertitude of the void."

Kids naturally spin around until they feel lightheaded and dizzy, to enter a temporary altered state. I still do that, but in others ways, such as thinking of Joyce's/Stephen's line here, as a mantra, and tap into the vertiginous dazzle of infinitude. I hope some of you actually enjoy these species of vertigo as well.



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