A commitment to justice and a willingness to risk one’s life, livelihood, or reputation in its pursuit…These are the very qualities needed to defeat both Perverted Liberalism and Irrational Conservatism.
- January 2, 2022 Composers Need Rules
- April 1, 2021 On Moral Fallacies: Why True Liberalism and Conservatism are Both Valid
- September 8, 2020 Long Artist Statement
- August 22, 2020 Artist Statement
- March 17, 2017 Karen Armstrong’s St Paul: An Epistolary Review
- September 7, 2016 Review: The Triumph of Vulgarity
- February 5, 2016 The Holographic Universe: A Review
- February 2, 2016 Reflections on Sculpture
- January 30, 2016 Reflections on Civil War Letters
- January 25, 2016 Review: Pope Francis’ Letter to the World
Notes on philosophy by Gregory Kyle
Here is the last in my series of posts on books I read in 2015. This one packed a punch:
Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe: The Revolutionary Theory of Reality  (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011).
Reading this book is like taking a journey into space: it disorients your equilibrium and challenges you to adapt to the new conditions. The Holographic Universe is difficult to process after only one reading, but here’s a brief attempt:
First, when I first read online somewhere that the universe may be a cosmic hologram in motion, the idea appealed to my feeling that material reality is not the ultimate reality, that it is in fact only a reflection of something more fundamental, namely consciousness. Talbot makes this very case in his well-researched investigation of the holographic principle. He begins by introducing neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, whose research suggests that the brain projects and decodes information in the same way that information is encoded in and projected through a holographic screen. The reader’s next acquaintance is physicist David Bohm, whose work in quantum physics (entailing topics including “action at a distance,” the EPR paradox, and plasmons) led him to conclude essentially that the universe as a whole is a holographic “movie” projection from a deeper, more highly organized level of reality. The significance of these ideas is that objective reality is a construct of the mind.
The rest of the book is a compendium of the supernatural, the paranormal, and the freaky. Heed well Talbot’s invitation in the introduction to keep an open mind—without one you will not get very far. The unsettling part is that the stuff he cites has been documented. I frequently found myself googling names, peoples, and personages, unwilling to yield assent—sometimes even consideration—too quickly. “Why haven’t I heard about this?” I wondered. Sure enough, there are Wikipedia articles on topics like Mirin Dajo, who had himself impaled through his vital organs without suffering harm; the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard, who in fits of religious hysteria, witnesses confirm, pleaded to be tortured but reported relief rather than pain, and emerged without sign of injury; the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab (PEAR) in which effects of psychokinesis—the ability to move something basically using The Force; i.e., to imagine something intently and thereby influence the outcome of actual reality—was apparently experimentally measured; Emanuel Swedenborg, who reported detailed visions of the afterlife realm as well as having interacted with the spirit-beings that dwell there, including the deceased humans; and Therese Neumann—whose name I recalled from Schumacher—a Catholic mystic who according to many witnesses ate and drank nothing for thirty-five years except the daily Eucharist. Different readers will respond differently to such accounts—which, if true, are surely paradigm-shifting. Some may categorically reject them; some may seek to explain them in natural terms; others may not want to be bothered because it would take too much time and effort to rethink their worldview; and others may become obsessed with the supernatural and seek out such experiences like the Holy Grail. To me, the best response is frankly to accept the reality of the supernatural, and, even if skepticism remains toward this or that particular anecdote, allow the paradigm to be shifted away from materialism and philosophical realism toward an acknowledgment of the power of consciousness and of the higher Levels of Being. This can be done without becoming obsessed with the supernatural, naively accepting every fairy tale, or relinquishing your “I’m no fool” card.
Talbot himself nudges the reader toward a pursuit of the supernatural. A refrain throughout the book is that the same transcendent potential exemplified by the mystics and visionaries he cites is “latent within all of us.” To some readers, religious orthodoxy may call for the censure of things mentioned in a positive light in this book: psychic readings, chakras, auras, hypnotism, shamanism, and belief in reincarnation. Whatever your views on such things may be, Talbot’s journalism logically contributes to the ultimate thesis of his work, which I happen to agree with: reality is the product of mind, or “spirit.” In the author’s terminology, the universe is “omnijective”—neither objective nor subjective, but both; a product of consciousness, but also quite real.
The idea that all reality is the product of consciousness may seem esoteric and strange, but it is nourishment to the bones of one whose faith in higher things must (in principle) harmonize with a rational view of the universe. To illustrate: Christians believe in miracles and the existence of a spiritual realm supervening this physical one. If such beliefs are warranted, what is the mode of interaction between spirit and matter? How can mountains be moved, the dead raised? The answer is no longer shrouded in mystery if material reality by definition is subordinate to spiritual agency. Matter obeys whatever spirit—endowed with much greater power than we’re used to—tells it to do. For this curiosity to be explained strengthens the credibility of faith.
Therefore, reading this book confirmed my sentiment that it is the final destiny of man and woman to transcend the limitations imposed by matter at the present level of existence, to ascend to higher Levels of Being, and ultimately to see the face of God. The empirical work of Pribram, Bohm and others is enough to encourage those who “desire a better country” beyond this world, and are committed to living this life with the attainment of that end in mind.
E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered  (London: Vintage Books, 1993).
This book is a response to the prevailing materialist paradigm of economics that has been the driving force of developed nations since the industrial revolution, especially since World War Two; it is also a vision of what human civilization could be, based on an economics that prizes not only profits, but human and environmental dignity. Schumacher exposes the folly of devout adherence to the notion that “bigger is better,” and urges a “self-limiting principle” to world economies, especially the advanced ones including his own, Britain. Such economic self-limitation is a stench in the nostrils of those preoccupied with amassing material wealth despite any social and environmental costs, and the ego which is the driving force of that pursuit. Schumacher brings balanced wisdom to the economic problems facing the modern world, acknowledging the necessity of economic profitability and individual freedom as well as the social and environmental consciousness which we silence to our own peril. In the end he navigates clear of the noisy extremes characterized by the defiant defenders of unbridled capitalism and the livid champions of the proletariat. Schumacher decries lifeless factory working conditions, the worship of the machine, and unsustainable consumption of energy (or “natural capital”); and urges emphasis on local economies, practical but non-technocratic assistance to developing nations, and proposes a form of common ownership of large businesses.
Despite the age of this publication, the principles it embodies remain as relevant today as ever. His chapter on education powerfully articulates the beauty of bestowing charity and magnanimity to our children instead of the impoverished metaphysics preached by the intellectuals of the nineteenth century–Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, etc. The truth-content in this volume is staggering. Many books one must read long and hard to find some silver or brass, and occasionally some gold; every page of this book pays dividends. Some chapters are pure gold. The most challenging part to me was the concluding section in which he proposes 50% government ownership of businesses that grow past a certain threshold in size. Setting aside any prejudice on the matter and considering the argument through the lens of pure reason in the service of love and freedom, I find his idea very difficult if not impossible to find fault with. In short, Small is Beautiful is a beautiful book written by an uncannily gifted but humble intellectual, respected economist, and friend of humankind.
E.F. Schumacher, A Guide For the Perplexed  (London: Vintage Books, 2011).
My review of this book was first published in October 2015 on Amazon.
Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed is the author’s response to the philosophical juggernaut of materialism in the western world. In it, he exposes the intellectual and spiritual poverty of the view that man is nothing more than a naked ape with advanced computing power; that there is no essential difference between inanimate matter, plant-life, animal life, and human life; that all these levels of being merely represent different arrangements of matter; that all reality and knowledge can be reduced to the objective measurement and analysis of physics and chemistry. This has been the prevailing view of scientists and intellectuals in the modern age, beginning with Descartes, and remains so today. In this book, as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1977, Schumacher demonstrates the inadequacy of this philosophy, while pointing to the ancient tradition–confirmed by modern writers and mystics–that matter, life, consciousness, and self-awareness represent progressively higher Levels of Being, and that recognition of this hierarchy is essential to a true understanding of the world. He posits “four fields of knowledge”: knowledge of oneself, i.e. one’s own interior existence; knowledge of the interior existence of others beings, achieved indirectly by communication and interpretation; knowledge of how one is perceived by and exists in relation to others; and finally knowledge of the outside material world. “Materialistic scientism” focuses exclusively on the last of these fields. While the study of this material field has yielded breathtaking results in science and technology, the study of all four fields is essential for a true attainment of human progress, peace, and purpose. Those who ignore the first three fields of knowledge remain ignorant of what truly matters.
This book is offered to those who, like Schumacher once did, find themselves perplexed that the desires and experiences that make us human—the desire to live a self-transcending life, the appreciation of beauty, our yearning for purpose and fulfillment—are reduced to illusory or accidental byproducts of evolution. The author respects and values the advances of science, but differentiates between these and the preposterous metaphysics with which they are clothed. He warns that the modern world cannot long survive in them.
The author’s distinction between the instructional and descriptive sciences is brilliant and essential reading for anyone working to contribute to human knowledge in any sphere. As a musician, I am particularly inspired by his appraisal of the value of art, how its highest value is evident in the communication of truth.
Schumacher’s power of synthesis and wisdom is evident in his appeal to an impressively wide range of sources—ancient, medieval and modern. In his appeal to the various religious traditions of mankind, he assembles a universal chorus that harmonizes in recognition of the deeper realities beyond the superficial layer of the physical. While Schumacher wrote as a Christian, his intended audience is broad, and he makes no demand that the reader even assent to belief in a deity. Meanwhile, the theist can savor the truths he articulates as if at the table of the Lord. In the chapter devoted to the first field of knowledge, Schumacher emphasizes the importance of meditation, characterizing it as an exercise of self-disciplined focus, and celebrating a variety of methodologies. Here religious disagreements may arise; and yet when viewed within the larger context of challenging materialism and of subordinating the intellect to the spirit, any such disagreements will seem peripheral. In any case, the book is indeed a precious and accessible guide for those perplexed by the inconsistency between their desire to live a meaningful, self-transcending life and the materialistic scientism preached by our modern intellectual authorities.
Here are two reviews on books that address how God interacts with creation given the discoveries of modern science:
John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction With the World  (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2005).
I picked up this book in search of perspectives on how God acts in the world. The picture painted by science seems to minimize the need to invoke supernatural causation, and yet as Christians we hold a biblical tradition of Providence, and interpret our daily lives through the lens of God’s intimate concern, involvement, and interaction in our lives and indeed all of creation. Polkinghorne suggests that God operates from behind the veils of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. Sub-atomic physics is viewed (though not by all!) as indeterminate; larger “chaotic” systems such as the weather are also indeterminate; as a result, there is an “openness” to the unfolding process of creation. No one can say with 100% certainty what is going to happen. God can therefore cause whatever he wants whenever he wants by, without violating the laws of conservation, nudging tiny elements here or there within these realms, desiring the chain of events that follows. To me, this view is interesting but ultimately speculative. Worse, Polkinghorne’s argument is maimed by his unwillingness to give up philosophical realism: for him, matter and the laws that govern it are absolute, and God must work around them. There are better perspectives available. What’s important, though, is that Polkinghorne recognizes the problem of divine action and doesn’t offer trite answers for it.
I found Polkinghorne’s writing style often taxing–he cites many bland theological quotations while forbearing to state his own views, and cloaks his prose in the tediously refined style of the academy. Yet there is some silver in his treatise: he exposes what he calls a “facile” and “glib” view of Providence, such that the believer interprets every life event from open parking spaces to rheumatism as direct from the hand of God, sent either as grace or punishment; but on the other hand he defends faith in Providence: “I do not think one can deny that there are remarkable threads of coincidence to be found in human life which it is proper for those who experience them to interpret as the personal God calling them by name.” In the end he endorses a balanced view that justifies thankfulness and prayer–what is at stake–while avoiding the simplistic view of Providence.
Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
After Polkinghorne, I was curious to see whether a better perspective on the problem of divine action in the world had been articulated. Plantinga devotes attention to this issue in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies, which evaluates real and alleged conflicts between religion and science. In it, he argues that there is no real conflict between theistic religion and science, but that the real conflict is between naturalism and science. Naturalism, the idea that there is no such thing as anything supernatural, is a metaphysical interpretation of or “add-on” to scientific theories like biological evolution. Plantinga takes up the foil against the belligerent atheists, Richard Dakwins and Daniel Dennet, and duels with skillful vigor and a flare of play. A lover of science, Plantinga embraces evolution, and turns it against the naturalist/atheist by arguing in the end that if Mind is the product of unguided natural selection, then our mental faculties are not reliable guides in our search for truth. This undercuts any dogma preached by the naturalist, such as the assertion that “the evidence of evolution reveals a world without design.” As for divine action, Plantinga echoes the notion that there is plenty of room for God to work from behind the shroud of quantum physics–whether to cause genetic mutations, guide evolution, or do the miracles recorded in scripture or prayed for in the present day. Unlike Polkinhorn, Plantinga is not struggling to avoid checkmate, but makes his moves confidently, showing that atheists and evolutionary psychologists have not gained their point against theistic religion in the name of science. I see the book as a whole as a serious challenge to and even firm chokehold on dogmatic naturalism.
January 11, 2016
This post marks the first in a series of reflections on books I read in 2015, offered mainly for my friends and family, as well as anyone else online looking for reviews of these works or otherwise interested in subjects ranging from philosophy, science, theology, and spirituality to economics, politics, and history. The first on the list is:
There is too much in this long and truth-packed document for me to attempt to summarize or comment on in a brief space; but within the greatness, I found many striking parallels with the Bible. After reading through, I closed the book convinced that Plato was a Christian. Of course he predated Christ, but the essence of his teaching harmonizes beautifully with that of Christ. No wonder medieval Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas deeply respected him. Among the striking parallels with the Bible are the following: Glaucon poses the question as to who is happier, the unjust man who is prosperous and celebrated as righteous, or the just man who is viewed as wicked, and then “scourged, racked, bound…and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, impaled.” Years ago I read C.S. Lewis cite this passage as one of the most outstanding ‘pagan’ anticipations of the truth. Reading it for myself confirmed to me the idea that what I as a Christian call the Spirit of Prophecy is not limited to people who have a conscious knowledge of the Gospel. Equally striking, furthermore, was Plato’s quotation of Romans 8:28 in Book 10 (four centuries before Paul!): “Even when [the just man] is in poverty or sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things will in the end work together for good to him in life and death…” Peppered throughout Plato’s Republic are many other images, ideas, and turns of phrase that recall various passages in scripture. If there is a single Spirit of Truth which, as Paul preached to the Athenians in the first century, is not far from all men but quite near, it is no surprise that such spontaneous concord should be discovered.
Overall, Socrates’ task is to answer Glaucon’s challenge to prove that the just person is truly happier than the unjust; this he does by sketching in detail the structure of human civilization, ultimately drawing parallels between the State and the individual, which is a microcosm of the former. Like the State, the individual has forces within that strive for mastery, but which must be ruled by wisdom and love for absolute truth. The dialogue becomes an occasion for Plato to propound his political vision, and to envisage the ideal State. Few works have been as influential throughout history.
Glaucon’s challenge is only resolved in the end when Socrates appeals to the immortality of the soul. The idea that there is reward and/or punishment beyond the grave offers rational justification for preferring the life of a just man, even when it means misery and sore travail, to the life of the unjust man, even when it means adulation, merriment and delight in this life.
Also paramount in this book, and of special interest to me as a composer, is Plato’s view on literature and music. Its purpose, he says, is to impart and reinforce the love of virtue within the citizens of the State, particularly the young in the context of education. Music and poetry—Plato often singles out Homer—can be judged based on whether it tunes the strings of the soul either to courage and temperance or to pusillanimity and lust. Reading this reminded me of Beethoven, whose personal library included the Republic and whose music often embodies the virtues Plato praises in this work. The essence of Plato’s teaching, I believe, remains relevant today: goodness in art reflects goodness in humans, and both should be encouraged and celebrated heartily.
This Labor Day weekend I started watching the Cosmos series that first aired in March of this year and is now available on Netflix. As an artist, I get inspiration from learning about the natural world, and for a long time science has provided, and continues to provide that for me. The Cosmos series itself is a work of art–visually and aurally brilliant. But after watching the second episode, I became keenly aware of an all-too-familiar habit of those propounding the wonders of evolution: that of speaking about natural selection or nature as a powerful agent or even quasi-conscious entity.
The second episode, entitled “Some of the Things that Molecules Do,” explores the evolution of life of earth, and opens with an introduction by the narrator, Neil Tyson. In the intro, he asks: “Where did all the different kinds of living creatures come from? The answer is: a transforming power that sounds like something straight out of a fairy-tale of myth,” and warns gravely, “but it’s no such thing.” Later he speaks of the “awesome power of evolution” and the things that natural selection can “do,” such as account for “all the beauty and diversity of life.”
Tyson, as many with and before him, uses active verbs to describe the many exploits of natural selection. The “environment itself selects“ genetic changes; or “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant,” and “science reveals that all life on earth is one.” The terms “environment,” “evolution,” and “science” could be replaced with someone’s name–such as Joe, Timmy, Dagon, or Zarathustra–and retain the same syntactical logic.
Isaac Asimov, my personal tutor on the history of science (through 1984), explains the pitfalls of such language from the point of view of “scientific purism”:
“Humans, as creatures who behave in a purposeful, motivated way, naturally tend to attribute purpose even to inanimate nature. Scientists call this attitude teleological, and try to avoid such a way of thinking and speaking as much as they can. But in describing the results of evolution, it is so convenient to speak in terms of development toward more efficient ends that even among scientists all but the most fanatical purists occasionally lapse into teleology.”
He continues to confess his own “sin” in falling short of this Puritan standard, and proceeds to discuss the evolution of the brain as the result of a “long series of evolutionary accidents.”
But is the alternative expedient? Consider again the line from Cosmos, “evolution can disguise an animal as a plant, or a plant as an animal.” How might it be re-phrased? Perhaps “evolution can result in an animal’s being disguised as a plant, and vice-versa,” or “evolutionary accidents can in effect disguise an animal as a plant.” This is cumbersome. Refining words to a nicety tends to reduce their emotional impact and thus alienate broader audiences. Thus, teleological language frankly makes better business sense. If the producers of the film want to maximize ROI, they did well to avoid anything that might smack of academicism or strict technical accuracy.
However, there may be more to it that this. Throughout the video, Tyson uses religious imagery. DNA, he says, is the”ancient scripture” of life (and it is universal too, not exclusive to believers!). The realization that all living things are related is a “spiritual” revelation. The Halls of Extinction even, in the film, are depicted as a temple or sanctuary for dead species. And the opening line, cited above, attributes all the “beauty and diversity of life” to (what he later calls) the “power of evolution.” This imagery is not accidental. It reflects certain perceived philosophical implications of the discoveries of science.
In Cosmos, the traditional religious view which evolution is purported to supplant–that a provident God created the heavens and the earth–is not replaced by pure atheism, in all its genuine fatalism, but by another religion, to wit, the Religion of Nature, or of Evolution. Throughout the episode, Tyson sings the praises of Natural Selection. It is “awesome,” has “power,” and yields, “masterpieces of complexity,” like the human eye.
This religion is not new. It is essentially pantheism and dates back to prehistoric times. But a religion it is. It attributes agency to Nature, blind though it may be, and ascribes all the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of the biological world to its power. It is also responsible for the fate of every species on on earth–their survival or damnation.
There is therefore a distinction between the actual science and the religious language in which it is clothed. Now: whether one favors the “scientific purism” of Asimov or the theism of tradition is another question. I personally believe it is possible to reconcile Divine Providence with the discoveries of science including the Principle of Contingency and that of Evolution, but leave that for another time. Watching Cosmos, I simply savor the meat and spit out the bones. The meat is delicious enough and the bones can be thrown to the wolves.
I won’t say much–only that I plan to be much more active here than anywhere else. Listen for notes I compose about life, music, and philosophy.
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