Archive for the ‘mystery’ category

The Strange Order of Things — A Book Review

November 25, 2019

The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, by Antonio Damasio, Pantheon Books, 2018.
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I was initially attracted to this book, coming upon it in a bookstore, just by the title.

The strange order of things well describes my own sense of the world, and experiences in it.  I’m not sure whether this book necessarily reinforces my perception of the strangeness and mystery of our lives, but it does provide another way to approach looking at life on Earth.

Strange OrderThe author, Antonio Damasio, is a professor of neuroscience, psychology and philosophy at the University of Southern California.  As that background might hint, this book is more of a work of scholarship than what would typically qualify as popular science reading material.  It is heavy going, at least for me, in many places, and seems intent on establishing the academic worth of the author’s ideas.

Homeostasis is all

The premise for all the book’s thought is the concept of “homeostasis.”  Most of us, if we remember high school biology, have a vague notion of what the term means.  Homeostasis, we were told, is about the ability of the body to maintain a stable internal environment despite changes in external, and internal, conditions.

A good example might be the actions our body takes to maintain our internal temperature of around 98.6 degrees F/37.0 degrees C.  Others could include glucose concentrations or calcium levels in the blood.  There is a narrow band of best fitness, and our body works towards those.  All of this is completely unconscious.  All animals keep themselves alive with the same mechanism.

Damasio takes the meaning and concept of homeostasis and broadens, deepens and heightens it a hundredfold on the basis of much recent scientific and philosophical work.

He then takes that omnipresent base of homeostasis and extends it eventually to human feelings, subjectivity and our consciousness, and the nature of cultures.

Damasio’s understanding of homeostasis is that it has “guided, without prior design, the selection of biological structures and mechanisms capable of not only maintaining life but also advancing the evolution of species….”

He goes on: “This conception of homeostasis, which conforms most closely to the physical, chemical, and biological evidence, is remarkably different from the conventional and impoverished conception of homeostasis that confines itself to the ‘balanced’ regulation of life’s operations.”  Our high school view of homeostasis is a narrow subset of the homeostasis Damasio is driving at.

So what exactly is Damasio’s concept?  In his view, homeostasis operated in ancient unicellular life forms back to the dawn of time, and in all the many intermediate life forms up to the present.  A nervous system, in the earliest creatures, was not necessary.  But it did require sensing and responding abilities, even down to the activity of chemical molecules in their membranes.  All in action to maintain the organism’s survival.

The homeostatic imperative

Damasio does not want to talk about maintaining the organism’s equilibrium or balance.  He wants to define homeostasis not as a neutral state but as a “homeostatic imperative” which projects and searches into the future as a basis for the organism’s well being today even on the chemical or molecular level.  Where is the best place to be to receive nutrients for that organism, for example.

Of course, for unicellular bacteria, there is no nervous system, but the evolution of life from those ancient beginnings depends, as we do, on homeostasis continuously casting about in time and space to increase the opportunities for survival of the organism. And not just bare survival, but:

“…Life is regulated within a range that is not just compatible with survival, but also conducive to flourishing, to a projection of life into the future of an organism or a species.”

In fact, for Damasio, how genes, nervous systems, consciousness, mind, feelings and culture come to exist at all is the result of the restless, unceasing activity of this homeostatic principle.  Homeostasis and life in all its forms are inseparable.

Damasio’s description of the development of the necessary nervous systems for animals to begin directly sensing and mapping their environment put me into a bemused state.

The mysterious stuff of the universe

It is as if the mysterious stuff of the universe (like the old-fashioned aether or the new-fashioned dark matter, dark energy and the little bit we know*) draws towards it the homeostatic seeking of life.  Nervous systems begin to form. They stretch out their tendrils of vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell for what that specific modality is capable of perceiving (while leaving out a vast universe of what is for the moment unknowable through those senses).

It’s a little like the fable of the elephant and the blind men, if the elephant is n-dimensional and we blindly imagine that what we see and hear, and the ideas that derive from that, must be the entire nature of things.

But I digress….  Damasio develops his line of thought about what homeostasis has wrought as follows:

— Development of the genetic apparatus is not conceivable without homeostasis
— Genetic selection is guided by homeostasis
— The first cells develop
— Multicellular organisms arrive
— Nervous systems take form which enable better sensing of the “surround”
— Mapping of the environment through the senses occurs
— The creation of “images” based on that mapping allow refined homeostasis
— The activity of feelings connect to the homeostatic regime
— Subjectivity and mind become prominent
— Social and cultural interaction become another layer

This is a list I drew up with large gaps in its sequence (some may be simultaneous) and description, but this is the drift of what I glean from the book.

The function of feelings

Damasio’s description of the function of feelings I found quite interesting, although in the book I thought it was a bit jumbled, with discussion here, and then over there.  He does devote two chapters to it, however, called Affect and The Construction of Feelings.

I find this interesting because I “feel” (there’s that word) that my life is governed more by feelings (including sensations in my body) as a mode of discernment rather than by intellectual or purely rational processes.  (It could be that’s just me though….)

“Feelings portray the organism’s interior – the state of internal organs and of internal operations – and as we have indicated, the conditions under which images of the interior get to be made set them apart from the images that portray the exterior world.”

The experience of feeling translates the condition of underlying life directly into mental terms, as bad, good or unremarkable in the background.

“Spontaneous feelings signify the overall state of life regulation as good, bad or in between.  Such feelings apprise their respective minds of the ongoing state of homeostasis.”

And such feelings eventually result in social and cultural consequences in one direction, and influence endocrine, immune and nervous systems going inward.

Damasio asks the question, why should feelings feel like anything at all, pleasant or unpleasant?  Because, he says, they make a difference. They prolong and save lives.  “Feelings conformed to the goals of the homeostatic imperative and helped implement them by making them matter mentally to their owner….”

Am I conscious?

For Damasio, evidence of consciousness (if we really need to have that) is that we each have our own perspective.  Subjectivity and integrated experience make up consciousness.  The process of subjectivity relies on the building of a perspective for images (from all the senses) and the accompaniment of the images by feelings.  There is no one place in the brain where all this occurs.

“Mental states naturally feel like something because it is advantageous for organisms to have mental states qualified by feeling.”

Moving on to homeostasis and the nature of culture, we run into a major difficulty for the success of homeostasis at that level.  Homeostasis is inherently based in the individual organism, and culture is really about how to accommodate the competing, or at least different, wants and (homeostatic) needs of each individual.

We could take a look at the social insects, though, as Damasio points out.  “Their seemingly responsible, socially successful behavior is not guided by a sense of responsibility to themselves or others, or by a corpus of philosophical reflections on the condition of being an insect.  It is guided by the gravitational pull of their life regulation needs….”

But on the more human, conscious level, I can see an obvious role for the mechanisms of homeostasis in at least those arenas where “distributed cognition” might hold sway.  (The concept of distributed cognition rethinks the basic unit of cognition, expanding it beyond the skull to include the whole body, useful physical artifacts and technologies, and ultimately, groups of people.  Think of a team of people navigating a large ship.  Or a band playing a song.)

As is usual with my reviews, especially of books on complex subjects, I have barely skimmed the surface here of what Damasio describes, and may occasionally have simplified it beyond recognition.  There is much more to the book especially on feelings, consciousness and the nature of culture.  Those ideas and the book as a whole is well worth the time it takes to wade through the density of the text.

But let me leave it here with this final quote from Damasio from an early chapter on the human condition:

“Cultural homeostasis is merely a work in progress often undermined by periods of adversity. We might venture that the ultimate success of cultural homeostasis depends on a fragile civilizational effort aimed at reconciling different regulation goals.  This is why the calm desperation of F. Scott Fitzgerald — ‘so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ — remains a prescient and appropriate way of describing the human condition.”

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*A footnote!

For some interesting articles on the current limits of what science knows about the universe:

We May Have to Wait for Post-Humans to Understand the Universe
The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics
Top 10 Unsolved Mysteries of the Strange Universe

A Few Notes On Getting Creative With Writing

March 16, 2019

Here are a few notes to myself about creative writing.  Gathered from many places!

—  If you want a creative scene, dialog or description, put two or more disparate elements (characters, scenery, moods) together.  Make them as unlikely and interesting as possible. Beware ridiculousness.  Have it make sense.

— People often belie their names or labels or concepts about themselves.  They’re not quite what they’ve been categorized as.  It’s fun to try to show that.

— Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.

— Try to look at the world, and especially your loved ones, with wonder.  And then at yourself.

— Story as change, not just conflict.  Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist, demirep*
That loves and saves her soul in new French books —
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway: one step aside
They’re classed and done with.
— Robert Browning

* a woman whose chastity is considered doubtful; an adventuress.  I think these are elegant ways to put it.

— But you may be sitting at your computer, or dipping your quill into the inkwell, and yet even with that sneezable amount of writing to do, you’re still feeling a little stuck or fretful.  You lack faith.  Having an inspirational book on writing beside you to browse for a minute or two is good then.

It is the writer’s openness to the ambiguity and uncertainty of any experience (even the experience of determination and certainty) which gives clarity, and thus a kind of certitude, to his writing. — John Bergen

— At the end, our hero is sunk so low in his voyage of revenge — a change of heart is his only possible way forward.

— There are aliens, or at least alien artifacts, in this story. How can one portray the really alien? I haven’t figured that one out yet — or I should say, I haven’t discovered what it might be. Giant ants or robots with laser eyes are so… human.

Springsteen sings like a man intent on opening his heart.  In this way he is an inspiring figure.

— Every character has some kind of armor, perhaps manifested in physical form that the character feels safe inside — a role or symbol or self-presentation that the character relies on, like say a doctor’s white coat or a stripper’s lack of clothes.  This becomes highly limiting.  And then to make it more complicated, occasionally putting the armor on is the right thing to do.

We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.
— Peter Brooks

— The tasks of this second draft I think will be to carefully remove the indistinct and to sharpen turns of the characters and to tighten the chains of causation between them. Make the future world more interesting and strange, yet plausible. Make the story better. Don’t die before it gets published….

— Thwarted needs turn into neediness, even if only on a subliminal or subconscious level.

— Texture of air.

— Emotions can often be more effectively described by showing the restraint of them.

— Each character’s little vanities about themselves or what they do, little prideful things.

— “Kenning.”  A kenning is a different name for a thing — so the sun becomes a day-star.

Clifton Fadiman on a book by Hemingway:
It is written with only one prejudice — a prejudice in favor of the common human being.  But that is a prejudice not easy to arrive at and which only major writers can movingly express.

— Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.

— It really requires getting in the scene with characters, as if in some battle arena where you, incorporeal, closely observe the goings on without fear of a knife in the ribs. One or two, or more, specific sensual descriptions in the scene can do so much. Being in the scene imaginatively with the characters facilitates that.

— I’ve realized that a lot of what makes satisfactory writing is developing emotional resonances for the characters and for the meaning of the story. I have a long way to go with this.

— I’ve come to understand how obsessed with story I am, just like everyone else in the world as we distract ourselves through film and music and books. Occasionally we discover real meaning through story. For us who want to write creatively, this obsession becomes more conscious, and in its compelling way, comes to capture our thoughts. We want to make stories that can speak in the same way that others have moved us, at the height of the best story-telling.

Being certain about any aspect of our story limits us. Let’s trust that the story lives fully within us, and that something valid wants to be expressed. There’s an experience far more empowering than certainty, and that is a faith in the fundamental truth of our story, a growing belief that it is not necessary to force anything, but rather to inquire into the nature of what we want to express.
— Alan Watt

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Canadian Summer III

April 18, 2018

We were older then

suddenly

The three boys

growing into men

although very young ones

Our mother

long widowed and

independent

Always ready for a

loud happy party

She loved to

hold court at the

fire pit

a  few yards from our cabin

on the hillside

over the creek

in a balding grove of poplars

The fire pit was half an old cast iron

boiler or other contraption

Go on – stick a log into the open end

into the fire’s hot coals

it saves making firewood

Sparks fly!

Summer twilight

Far enough north to be uncommonly late

our neighbours, friends and

townfolk who knew my mother

pick-ups and sedans in the yard

the noise of the creek

in the oncoming night

All gathered ’round the flames

bright yellow and orange

shimmering white deep down

We sat on logs or planks

Some standing

beer in hand

the firelight gleaming from our eyes and glasses

Chatting and teasing, disputing and agreeing

or not speaking, taking in the summer night

Waving away the firesmoke and mosquitos

Not quite knowing that

This is what endures

 

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Canadian Summer II

April 14, 2018

See

there’s the Old Wagon Road

that went up over our land and

ran off to who knows where

Grassed over

it was a road to nowhere

a remnant of another time

deep into the forest

of our imaginations

cowboys and indians

cops and robbers

no super heroes though

My brothers built

a little house

in the woods

out of poles

by the Old Wagon Road

an echo of

the log cabin in the clearing below us

The little house framed a collection

of cast-off plates spoons and pots

old rusting tools

and a broken down chair

From outside take a look

between

the little green poplar logs

all the wonderful clutter within

I don’t know what it was

But that pretend cabin

stood proud along

the old road

 

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Canadian Summer

April 10, 2018

as I lived it

my own particular Canadian summer

you’re there

say 1967

log cabin

central northern bc, canada, north america

the wheat fields next door

provide the burnished light

of summer

on Deep Creek Road

past where that bull was corralled

come on down and

cross the Deep Creek bridge

and take the right into our driveway

Go past

that there official welcoming committee

three old black rubber tires

stacked to hold upright

a rag doll man

made out of driftwood

and a steer skull

decorated with my brothers’ old

clothes

And roll up the slight rise as the gravel crunches

And stop

There’s the log cabin

That captured my father’s heart

thecabin

 

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