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Archive for July, 2010

As Galadriel says, he who dares to look into her Mirror may see some things that were, some things that are and some things that might yet come to be.  And who is to say which is which?  Who is to say which events are actual and which are only potential, and which, therefore, might never have been or which might never come to be?

The past, the present, the future.  Perhaps these are near-primary conditions of existence, at least as far as we are concerned.  For us to be fully human, each must be here in our lives ; not as mere abstractions, but as living entities full of happenings.

Without the past, the present is meaningless ; without the present, we are in oblivion ; without the future we have no hope.

And yet, how often do we give thought to these things?  How often do we dismiss our own past as irrelevant?  How often do we dismiss history as ‘bunk’?  How often do we avert our gaze from the future because we think it as mere dreaming (or nightmaring)?  How do we bring these dimensions to life and use them?

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Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold… The realm of the fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things : all manner of beasts and birds are found there ; shoreless seas and stars uncounted ; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril ; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost. (Tolkien)

JRR Tolkien was, by common consent, a master in the telling of tales. Also he was a leading expert on the history of the mediaeval English ; of Middle Earth, in fact. For what is The Shire, if not a rendering of mediaeval, essentially Saxon, England as it ought to have been – peaceful, joyful, gently prosperous and merrymaking ; a place where people (despite their petty squabbling) minded their own business and worked for the common weal and their own modest gains?

But The Shire is not Faerie ; at least, not to the hobbits. Faerie is to be found outside The Shire ; not far, but outside, nevertheless. And there in the old forest, to meet Tom Bombadil and Goldberry is to be in Faerie. Note that to meet Tom on one of his many visits to the inns and homes in The Shire is not to see him as of the Other World ; he is quite ordinary (if eccentric) on these visits.

No, to meet the real Tom Bombadil, you must enter his realm. And it is not enough merely to pass through the tunnel at Buckland and into the old forest ; nor is it enough merely to row or paddle up the Withywindle where it flows into the Brandywine river. Even to meet the white swan or the blue kingfisher is not enough ; and merely sheltering under the weeping fronds of the willow is insufficient. To meet the real Tom, to enter Faerie, you must be invited – even if you do not know that you have been invited.

And, once in Faerie, one must be careful in thought, word and deed ; for things are only rarely what they seem to be.

Old and young

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    Old and young

    Old, or young?

    She thought she saw a wicked witch
    A-cursing in the wood.
    She looked again and saw it was
    A damsel fair and good.

    I wrote a post earlier which shows how easy it is to mistake one thing for another ; if you like, you can find the post here.

    So, at first glance, and for particular reasons, she first saw a wicked witch ; but, at second glance, and for different particular reasons, she then saw a fair damsel.  But suppose there had never been a second glance?  Suppose there had never been particular reasons of the second kind?  Surely she would have gone on believing for ever that she had seen a witch.  She would have gone on believing in a mistake.

    Now,  it’s plain to see that an individual can easily make such a mistake.  But suppose a whole population were to make that same mistake?  Is it possible for an entire population to misconceive something?  For, surely, our most common test of truth is that everybody believes it.  In our common way of thinking, the more people who believe in a thing, the truer it is.  There are many possibilities for developing a discussion on this point.

    But, for now, I’d just like to focus attention on some thing nearer the root of this peculiarity of ours ; this peculiar ability to form two distinct and contrary concepts from the same raw material.  How can the same ink marks on a piece of paper give rise to contrary mental (cognitive) models of the material reality in front of us?  It would seem that the differences in the concepts do not arise from the world outside of us, and so they must arise from within ourselves ; from our own mental processes.

    So, the ink marks seem to be just that, nothing more ; but the concepts of them seems to be within us.  Does this mean that world outside of us is one thing, while our concepts of the world are another?  Are there, in fact, two worlds – one outer and one inner?

    Some argue that there is only one world, and that is the world as we see it ; the world of our consciousness.  But, if that is the case, then how are we to describe what is outside of us?  Perhaps the ‘world’ outside of our consciousness is only a potential world ; and it does not reach its completion until we have formed our concepts of it.  Thus, the paper with the ink marks is only potentially a picture of something real ; it becomes real when we have made a mental model of either a witch or a beauty.

    So, if this is the case, then the world is something that we create within ourselves.  But, if that is true, then it is no longer true to say that we see either a witch or a beauty in the world before us.

    But there is yet another way of understanding this.  We can say that, having made a mental model of something in the world outside of us, we then project our model on to that object.  The ambiguous object then becomes identical to our mental model of it.  Some people call this process interaction ; we are not so much passive observers of the world, are active observers who do, in fact, play our part in creating the world.  And so, as we go on discovering new things, the world becomes what we ourselves make of it.  In older times this same process was known as participation ; we participate in the material world, while the world participates in us.  As we change as a result of our participation in the world, so the world changes as a result of its participation in us.

    Much to meditate on here!

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An old woman - a witch

The picture of the old woman, whose name is Cracklebones, with the huge hooked nose and cruel thin lips, and wearing a dirty-white headscarf, reminds us of a witch ; it also reminds us of our tendency to make judgements of people ; judgements that are often based on little evidence.  Is this prejudice?  Well, it might be and it might not ; it depends on what we conventionally regard as valid evidence.

The nature of evidence is itself interesting.  People often assume that it consists of objects.  For example, if young Matilda is found dead in the forest very near the witch’s haunted house, we are apt to think that she has been murdered.  And, since Matilda shows no sign of injury, we are inclined to think she has been either poisoned or killed by a dastardly spell.

And if we then find the wicked witch sitting nearby, stirring a pot that smells of hemlock, stroking her sinister black cat and cackling to herself, we are inclined to think that it was she who committed the murder.  The witch murdered the young lady, Matilda.  Was it jealousy that made her do it?

But, actually, all these physical signs – the body, the old woman, the hemlock, the cat, the cackles, and the gloomy cottage  in the woods – do not amount to anything at all.  They are just things.

It is only when we think about those things that they become evidence.  We have to think about the things and then link them, one to another, in a chain of reasoning.  Evidence is derived from reason and from consciousness, and not merely from things.

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So much for the evidence, but what about young Matilda?  She is quite a beauty.  In the picture below, she is looking away from us, so that we see her rather delicate jaw-line and a narrow, elegant neckband ; she is wearing soft fur stole of the best quality. She wears a feather above her brow.  She appears to be rather a shy young lady of refined manners.

A young lady

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In my experience, most people are able to make the switch in perception, so that they can see either the witch or the young lady.  But I know no-one who can see both at the same time.  We tend to see either one or the other.  On reflection, it is quite remarkable that the same identical picture can give rise to two contrary perceptions.

It reminds us that the picture ‘out there’, outside of our brains and bodies, is not what we actually perceive.  What we perceive is what our minds make of the picture.  From the same ink marks on the paper, we can make two very different cognitive models.

Also it reminds us that making a mental image of what we see is not just a question of processing sensory data ; it is a question of thinking about that data and about previously-learned data as well.  Though that thinking is normally done so rapidly that we are usually not aware of it.

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There are some peculiarities of the world that we are familiar with.  For example, we know that if a large boulder crashes to the ground, in a place uninhabited by any living thing, then no sound will be produced as a result.  All will be silent because the crashing boulder produces only waves of vibrations in the air ; for there to be sound, there has to be a person** present to hear it.  For sound is a psychological thing ; it what our consciousness presents to us in response to vibrations entering the ears.

So the rock and its vibrations are mechanical things ; but the sound is not at all mechanical ; it is what the human mind makes of the mechanics.

And then we have other peculiarities.  We commonly say that the lonely rock has colour.  But the scientists says otherwise.  The physicist will say that the rock merely reflects electromagnetic radiation from its surface ; and radiation has no colour.  The colour is presented to us in consciousness as a response to the radiation.

So there we have it : the lonely rock crashing in the desert is completely inaudible and invisible, too.  We can go through all the rock’s physical properties, and we will discover that it has none at all – unless a human being is present to witness them.

All this raises important questions : How much of the world exists independently of us?  And how much of the world is of our own making?  Also, what are we to make of the ancient world that we assume was there before we came along?

Was the physicist, Max Planck, correct when he stated that matter is derived from consciousness?

** There is more to be said about other creatures and their senses and their consciousness.

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When people are threatened by a drastic change in their way of living it is natural that they should feel nervous, for a way of living is what supports our whole feelings of security and well-being.  And that security (however fragile) and that well-being (however tenuous) are real ; and, in general, they are the best we can reasonably hope for in our given circumstances.  That nervousness we feel when our way of living is threatened is properly  called fear.  We fear a great loss.

Perhaps the greatest change in our way of living comes when we die, and the threat of death seems to provoke the greatest of our fears.  And that threat, and that fear, are always present throughout our lives from the moment we first learn the meaning of death.  But it is generally when we have a close encounter with death that the fear is greatest ; for most of the time we merely acknowledge the inevitability of our dying and then quickly move our thoughts on to something more comforting.

Closely following on from death in our scale of fears is the threat to our everyday way of life.  Throughout history are littered countless tales of tribes and nations whose ways of living have been disturbed by invaders, both warlike and peaceful, who threaten to change the traditional ways.  Consequently, there have always been undercurrents of nervousness that govern the relations between different peoples.

Given the immense damage that people have done to each other over long ages of time, perhaps one day we will learn to overcome our fears.  Indeed, that might be an essential step in the evolution of the human race.  I do not suppose this change will come any time soon ; we must think in terms of millennia, and not generations or even centuries.

Perhaps we might take a lesson from a fisherman.  For isn’t it true that we can never actually lose our way of living?  For example, at the moment of death, we can reflect that we have, in fact, already enjoyed our life ; it’s just that we will not be having any more of it.  We have lost nothing.  All those future days that we wish for are simply in our imaginations.  As Isaak Walton said, “Brother, ye never lost what ye never had.”

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Of all the world’s wonders there is none greater than human consciousness.  If we were not conscious, then there would be no world that we could speak of.  No doubt there is something outside of our consciousness, but it is not the world ; for the world is a construction made of distinctly human cognitive (mental) models of the information that our senses bring to us.  We are able to construct those cognitive models because we can think about the sensory data.  And we are further able to think about the relations between those models. We are able to do science, as it were.

But perhaps there is something greater than mere human consciousness.  For we also possess self-consciousness.  We are not only aware of the world, but we are also aware that we are aware of the world.  And, because of that self-awareness, we are able to think about our relations with the world.

It is interesting to ponder these things in the context of science.  As one reads scientific papers and journals, one is struck by the heavy emphasis given to the relations between the things that scientists are conscious of.  But almost no attention at all is paid to the relations between the scientist and the things that he studies.

It is as if scientists do not realise that what they are studying is their own cognitive models ; the phenomena that their own minds have constructed.

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