Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Not that anybody asked, but this is what I believe.

I believe that the world -- the universe -- is out there, or rather, here, and that we are part of it.

I believe that the universe would continue to exist without human perception, and that it existed before human perception.

I believe that while human perception, imagination, and understanding can come to more-or-less accurate accounts of phenomena, two limits hem these accounts in: First, we have no way of knowing with absolute certainty which portions of our accounts are accurate; and second, nobody will ever have a complete account of phenomena, and not just because of temporal limits or Heisenbergian limits. I believe that uncounted phenomena will remain opaque to human understanding. For example, we may never understand what dark energy is or how it works. By contrast, we may learn that what we are presently calling “dark energy” is really something else altogether. Another example: Will we ever understand why it is that when two highly flammable gases -- hydrogen and oxygen -- fuse, they become something which smothers fire, and not something super-extra-fiery?

Michael Berube’s thoughts on the death of philosopher Richard Rorty prompt these reflections. As with quite a lot else, I first learned of Rorty in Kyle Gann’s Village Voice column, many years ago. Gann’s account of Rorty’s pragmatism seemed congenial to me, and I’ve never read Rorty, though just tonight I reserved his book Contingency, Irony, Solidarity from the library.

In his obituary, Berube states, “I was never quite convinced by Rorty's claims that the languages of the physical sciences were as contingent as any other form of language.” “Contingent on what?” you may ask, as Berube did of Rorty in a graduate seminar, to which Rorty replied: "Not contingent on anything, just … contingent."

Please forgive me if my ill-informed state leads me to blatantly blunder in asking this, but didn’t Pluto’s recent demotion from planet-status reveal the contingent nature of scientific language? Isn’t it contingent on the limits of present understanding and consensus? Hasn’t the language of science evolved over time even more drastically than than the language of poetry? Or am I completely missing the boat on the meaning of “contingent,” and stepping off the dock and into the drink -- in short, am I all wet?

As I reflect on the roots of my non-anti-rational skepticism, I realize I must have been influenced by Taoism. When I hitch-hiked across the country at the age of 19, I took the Tao Te Ching with me -- and maybe the Chuang Tzu as well. And now I don’t remember where I first heard about Taoism. In college? Probably. In a class? I don’t think so. From another student? Quite likely -- maybe my friend Jeff D.? From reading Alan Watts? And why would I have been reading Alan Watts? Not for a class -- because John Cage mentioned him? Does John Cage mention him? Quite possibly not! I would have been reading Cage because I was a music nerd (though not a music student).

Whatever the case may be, I seem to have lost my edition of Chuang Tzu, which disappoints me for a number of reasons. But in looking for a passage on language that I half-remembered, I found some relevant stuff that I’m sure I read as a teen-ager. Here are two passages from the chapter, “Discussion on Making All Things Equal,” in Burton Watson’s standard translation.

Suppose you and I have had an argument. If you have beaten me instead of my beating you, then are you necessarily right and am I necessarily wrong? If I had beaten you instead of you beating me, then am I necessarily right and are you necessarily wrong? Is one of us right and the other wrong? Are both of us right or are both of us wrong? If you and I don't know the answer, then other people are bound to be even more in the dark. Whom shall we get to decide what is right? Shall we get someone who agrees with you to decide? But if he already agrees with you, how can he decide fairly? Shall we get someone who agrees with me? But if he already agrees with me, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who disagrees with both of us? But if he already disagrees with both of us, how can he decide? Shall we get someone who agrees with both of us? But if he already agrees with both of us, how can he decide? Obviously, then, neither you nor I nor anyone else can know the answer. Shall we wait for still another person? . . .

Words are not just wind. Words have something to say. But if what they have to say is not fixed, then do they really say something? Or do they say nothing? People suppose that words are different from the peeps of baby birds, but is there a difference or isn't there?

This is the quote I was looking for -- not quite as relevant, as it turns out, but still lively.

The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you've gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you've gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning; once you've gotten the meaning, you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?

Condolences to Rorty’s family and friends.

-- The image, if I'm not mistaken, is of Chuang Tzu conversing with a friend.
Thomas Merton used it on the cover of his edition of the writings attributed to Chuang Tzu.
I don't know the source of the picture.

I agree. But if we agree to disagree... But who would agree to that?

That Chuang Tzu was certainly clever-tongued construction.

I think scientific language is contingent because it examines a reality that it constantly discovers new things about. So any scientific term is bound to undergo alterations dependent on new accuracies of measurement, let's say, or some other alteration of view.

Finance economics uses language that is not contingent,for all practical purposes, because it is attached to nothing tangible except the articulating of permissions for the powerful to exercise their power. Power defining its power -- a situation which seeks to define its existence as permanent and immutable. The market value of bread in finance terms has nothing to do with the bread a person can bake, touch, eat, or a crust of which would extend for an hour or so the life of a starving person.

I was just thinking about this today reading an article comparing the housing bubble to the dot com bubble, and both to the junk bond bubble, and all three to the legendary state of affairs presaging the crash of 29.

How did the Soviet bloc collapse? Was it because the leaders could no longer ignore that no polity was holding them up? There was nothing supporting their power but their own belief - and that had become insufficient to keep them aloft.

The Soviet Bloc bubble.

Similar is the Bush-Cheney bubble. They once believed they could construct reality, and the reality -based community would have to conform to their new world. That kind of arrogance - imagining oneself to be self-sustaining - well, I hope reality will always bite people like that in the ass at some point.
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