An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA
Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:
I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.
Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:
Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:
The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”
The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.
We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.
A recent conversation with a psychologist friend of mine brought up the importance of our very human version of neurobiology, and how little we still understand about the complex neurobiological processes that are responsible for behavior and our ability to interact with our fellow cognitive creatures. While much has been discovered about the mechanisms of both cognition and genetics as they relate to brain development and how it all relates to human activities, not much material is actually available that definitively addresses the implications, sources, and treatments for specific pathologies as they relate in the fields of neuroscience and biology. A quick check into the sources of information on neurobiology in general will provide a wide range of options from which to choose, but so much is still not being studied and not wholly understood.
With all the research and scholarship taking place in the field of cognitive studies and neurobiology, there are a few hopeful signs that an expanded view of what might constitute a comprehensive theory of the subjective experience of consciousness might finally be emerging. UCLA psychiatry professor, Daniel Siegel, whose most recent book is “Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human,” has a supportive view. On the website, “Big Think,” Siegel’s idea is reviewed and his idea is phrased in this way: “We’ve come to accept that the brain is the instrument that plays the mind, but Siegel takes it one step further by positing that your mind isn’t limited to the confines of your skull, or even the barrier of your skin anywhere in your body. Your mind is emergent – it’s beyond your physiology, and it exists in many different places at once.”
Supporting Seigel’s ideas is an impressive background in a wide range of studies in psychiatry and philosophy, and his serious attention to the science of the mind and brain give his ideas some genuine gravitas. According to his bio on his website, “…Daniel J. Siegel received his medical degree from Harvard University and completed his postgraduate medical education at UCLA with training in pediatrics and child, adolescent and adult psychiatry. He served as a National Institute of Mental Health Research Fellow at UCLA, studying family interactions with an emphasis on how attachment experiences influence emotions, behavior, autobiographical memory and narrative. Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.”
I recently reviewed Siegel’s 2011 presentation to the Garrison Institute on YouTube and recommend it as a good introduction to the idea that the mind is, in Siegel’s words, “…an embodied and relational emergent process that regulates the flow of energy and information,” and in the video he describes “the role of awareness and attention in monitoring and modifying the mind.”
These are complex ideas and challenging for many people to wrap their own minds around them, but Siegel presents them in an accessible way to a more general audience and goes to great lengths to explain in detail, how it is that the “mind” includes the physiology of the brain, but is not limited to the physical structures of the brain, or indeed to the body itself. The implications for subjective experience in particular, and our very human version of consciousness generally, are far reaching and intriguing for anyone interested in the subject.
In the coming weeks, I hope to write about some of the recent ideas and investigations going on in our current century, and also to reflect a bit on some of the more expansive ideas from some of the great thinkers of the past few centuries. It’s interesting to me how many of the ideas from the past are now receiving greater attention due to the efforts of scholars like Siegel, and look forward to sharing my thoughts and musings with my readers here.
Since there is so much conversation going on these days about Artificial Intelligence and what we might expect in the coming years as scientists and researchers advance in constructing ever-more complex machines, I thought it might be a good time to consider not only what it means to be “intelligent,” but also what importance the term “artificial” carries with it when using the two terms together in a sentence. In recent years, cognitive scientists and AI researchers have made significant progress in producing machines which can perform specific tasks and demonstrate specialized capacities for accomplishing remarkable feats of machine intelligence, and in very specific ways, have outperformed humans in circumstances which previously were thought to be beyond such artificial constructs.
While all of the hoopla and publicity surrounding such events generally results in hyperbole and sensational headlines, there is a degree of fundamental achievement underneath it all that warrants our attention and could be described as commendable in the context of modern scientific research. Most media consumers and television viewers have encountered the commercials for IBM’s Watson, and have likely been exposed to reports of Watson’s abilities and accomplishments. There is much to admire in the work that resulted in the existence of such a system, and the benefits are fairly straightforward as presented by the advertisements, although it is also clear that they have been designed to feature what might be the most benign and easy-to-understand characteristics of a system which accomplishes its tasks using artificial intelligence. Much of the underlying science, potential risks, and limits of such research are rarely discussed in such ads.
In order to make some kind of sense of it all, and to think about what it is exactly that is being accomplished with artificial intelligence, what forces and processes are being employed, and how the results compare to other cognitive achievements, especially as it relates to human intelligence and human cognitive processes, we have to understand something about the most important differences between a system like Watson, and the cognitive processes and brain physiology of modern humans. While some stunning similarities exist between the basic architecture of neural networks in the brain and modern AI devices, not a single project currently being undertaken is anywhere near the goal of rising to an equivalent level of general capability or even just achieving a basic understanding what it takes to create a human mind. It’s not that it’s an impossible undertaking, nor is it impossible to imagine how human minds might eventually make great leaps in both constructing advanced systems and in making progress toward a greater level of understanding. After all, the human mind is pretty stunning all by itself!
What is most discouraging from my point of view is how much emphasis is being placed on the mechanics of intelligence–the structural underpinning of physical systems–instead of including a more holistic and comprehensive approach to increasing our understanding. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Yale University computer science professor, David Gelernter, (Review, March 19-20, 2017) posits that “…software can simulate feeling. A robot can tell you it’s depressed and act depressed, although it feels nothing.” Whether or not this approach might bring us closer to “machines that can think and feel,” successfully doing so seems like a long shot. If all we can do is “simulate” a human mind, is that really accomplishing anything?
Professor Gelernter goes to great lengths to describe the levels of a functional human mind, and gives us valuable insights into the way our own minds work, and he illuminates the way we shift between levels of awareness, as well as how we make such good use of our unique brand of intelligence. He then suggests that AI could create these same circumstances in a “computer mind,” and that it could “…in principle, build a simulated mind that reproduced all of the nuances of human thought, and (which) dealt with the world in a thoroughly human way, despite being unconscious.” He takes great pains to enumerate all the ways in which the “spectrum” of a human mind operates, and then concludes that “Once AI has decided to notice and accept this spectrum–this basic fact about the mind–we will be able to reproduce it in software.”
We cannot reduce what it means to feel to the astonishingly complex machinations of the human brain, any more than we can boil down the complexity of the human brain to the point where an artfully written piece of software can recreate anything even close to human feelings–what it actually feels like to be a living, breathing, cognitive human being. As Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Shakespeare’s intimation on the limitations of even human thought should give us pause to consider the limitations of producing it artificially.
—more to come—
An extraordinary opportunity to travel to Center City Philadelphia this weekend made it possible to fulfill a longtime wish from my younger days to view in person some of the actual original works of Winslow Homer. As a much younger man, full of optimism and the creative spirit, I had thought to become an artist myself, and had taken many steps to achieve that aim throughout my educational journey. Art classes in grammar school, high school, and college only served to heighten my interest in the great works of art created out in the world, and one of my earliest experiences with admiration for other artists involved Mr. Homer, as his paintings were often used as illustrations for poetry books that I never seemed to be able to avoid reading.
The painting at the top of this page, entitled, “Diamond Shoal,” was created around 1905, and captured my imagination not simply as a work of art, but as an inspiration to imagine sailing in such a circumstance myself, as well as prompting what would become a lifelong interest in watercolor painting. Once it became an interest for me, I began attempting to create my own works, a few of which have illustrated my writings here. I never felt like my own skill approached any sort of level that might warrant attention from the art world, but the inspiration of the many works I encountered along the way never left me.
The image above, also by Winslow Homer, is a prime example of how such paintings not only appealed to me as a work of art, but also gave me an appreciation for the content of artwork that the masters unfailingly produced, which I rarely felt that I could embody in my own work. The painting is called, The Trysting Place,” from around 1875, and it depicts a young woman waiting at an appointed meeting place for what the artist described as “…a tardy lover.” You can almost feel the butterflies in her stomach in anticipation of his arrival, and perhaps even some anxiety that he might not show up at all. She is a lovely young woman, dressed in a deliberate choice by the artist as emblematic of the times, and she seems both vulnerable as she wonders what might be keeping her lover, and yet still also courageous to make the arrangement in the first place. Standing in front of these works, knowing that they are the original work of an artist I have long admired and who is world famous with good cause, was both uplifting and inspiring, even as a much older man today. There were hundreds of works by other artists as well and a few of them were especially notable for me as an enthusiastic patron of the exhibit.
This image was painted by one of the many women artists featured at the exhibit. “Bow Sprit,” from around 1916-1918, is a much more impressionistic rendering than some of the others which caught my eye, and I love how the impressions of the water and the sails and the circumstance are more than sufficient to give the viewer a sense of what the artist saw. I love the sparkling array of colors and the fluid movement suggested by her skilled hands. There were many renderings in the exhibit which had similar effects, but this one stood out for me.
At about the half-way point in the journey through these amazing images, there was a section of Winslow Homer works, paired with similar subjects and renderings by another master of watercolor, John Singer Sargent. Both artists were members of the American Watercolor Society in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, but had remarkably different approaches to their work, and the contrast was both illuminating and interesting to contemplate. Homer seemed most often to be more concerned with precision and including important details in his renderings, and Sargent was much more focused on the impressionistic aspects of his final works, but both achieved a very similar result which delights and inspires.
Included in this array of creativity were two images by Georgia O’Keefe, someone whose work I have always admired, but for which I had never had the opportunity to view in person. The image above was one of the two, both renderings described as “Evening Star,” and this one is “number two.” The description reported the works as “experimental in nature,” both created as an exploration of the medium and of the subject. There was a palpable feeling of connection to the artist for me at that moment, and as with many of the other works displayed, a sense of awe and satisfaction that is very difficult to articulate.
The exhibit is only available in Philadelphia, and only for a few short weeks from March 1st through May 14th. The quality and nature of these paintings are so exquisitely unique, that they are very rarely exhibited due to the harm that results from exposure to light, even the subtle indoor light of the museum. Several of the works had curtains in front of them so as to minimize the amount of exposure the paintings would receive, even during such a short period of time. Going to such lengths to preserve these works is an enormously important factor for future generations, and I walked away from the museum that afternoon enlivened and inspired in a way that is also unfortunately not as frequent as I would like.
Our connection to the artists and the works they produced in the past is a vital link to the very heart of our humanity, and while each of us may not be masters of our chosen creative arts, we each possess the same vital elements within us that connects us to each other and to those who came before us. We are the masters of our own creative spirits, and uniquely qualified to continue to connect to our spiritual and creative sensibilities as only we can.
Winter has finally begun to lose its grasp on the world around me, and as it wanes, I find myself in a fairly predictable state of mind for this time of year. It generally feels like a sort of aching melancholy or some leftover winter suppression or vagueness in my personal emotional experience of life, and while that sounds as though it might be unpleasant, it usually precedes a more buoyant and upbeat condition as the temperatures become more moderate and the Spring begins to really take hold. Since it is only temporary and is normally followed by a more balanced interval, I try to be philosophical about it and look forward to the inevitable lift as the flowers bloom and the world slowly becomes more verdant. Stepping out the front door this morning, I caught my first glimpse of that transitional moment and it inspired me to share some recent thoughts with my readers here.
The image of the blossoms right outside the front door was enough to stir the anticipated and more optimistic emotional response in spite of current conditions being a bit chilly and rainy outside. These blossoms seemed to appear overnight, and every year the various plants always appear on a different schedule, almost competing with each other for bragging rights as to which ones were first and second. While I generally would not definitively or empirically associate such emotions with the flowers that appear in front of my house each year, speaking of them in this way feels completely reasonable to me, and my appreciation for their arrival also appears unfailingly when they arrive. We may wish to call this “imposing” my own emotions on a bunch of plants, but it is more correct to say that my emotions are stirred by the appearance of these plants, and I recognize the part they play in my experience of these emotions.
The image at the top of the post was actually taken out behind the garage, but had no less effect on my emotional response to the plants out front. Having been inspired to walk around the yard by the availability of both time and opportunity, I found myself standing in a fairly moderate rainfall as I attempted to capitalize on the momentary emotional stirring within me. Quite the opposite response occurred as I examined the astonishing progress of the ivy crawling up the side of the garage, which had not been there only a week ago. Each Autumn, I attempt to reduce the presence of the vines in the back by savagely and unapologetically slashing the overgrowth on the back fence, and every Spring, the tenacity of nature and the persistent determination of the vines always seems to win out. I’ve tried every solution known to man to eradicate the chokers of the trees in my yard and the destroyers of my other plants, and every year the vines return, almost as though I hadn’t made any effort at all.
I recently reviewed a new book by Lisa Feldman Barrett called, “How Emotions Are Made,” and while there is much to admire about her work, it struck me as completely counterintuitive to suppose that our brains alone produce our emotions. The book claims to be about “our emotions—what they are, where they come from, why we have them.” She writes, “A mental event, such as fear, is not created by only one set of neurons. Instead, combinations of different neurons can create instances of fear…A single brain area or network contributes to many different mental states.” The implication here seems to be that our emotions are entirely explainable through brain science.
Dr. Barrett is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. According to her webpage: “Dr. Barrett’s research focuses on the nature of emotion from the perspectives of both psychology and neuroscience, and takes inspiration from anthropology, philosophy, and linguistics. Her lab takes an interdisciplinary approach, and incorporates methods from social, clinical, and personality psychology, psychophysiology, cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience, and visual cognition.”
In the coming weeks, I hope to expand on these ideas and explain how a great deal more goes into our emotional experience of life than can be explained by cognitive science, and to flush out more of my own ideas in the process.
“Quantum mechanics is the best theory we have for describing the world at the nuts-and-bolts level of atoms and subatomic particles. Perhaps the most renowned of its mysteries is the fact that the outcome of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not we choose to measure some property of the particles involved.”
When this “observer effect” was first noticed by the early pioneers of quantum theory, they were deeply troubled. It seemed to undermine the basic assumption behind all science: that there is an objective world out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends on how – or if – we look at it, what can “reality” really mean?”
“The physicist Pascual Jordan, who worked with quantum guru Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in the 1920s, put it like this: “observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel [a quantum particle] to assume a definite position.” In other words, Jordan said, “we ourselves produce the results of measurements.”
“To this day, physicists do not agree on the best way to interpret these quantum experiments, and to some extent what you make of them is (at the moment) up to you. But one way or another, it is hard to avoid the implication that consciousness and quantum mechanics are somehow linked.”
• –Excerpt from article by Philip Ball on BBC.com
Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology. He has written widely on the interactions between art and science, and continues to write regularly for Nature. He has a BA in Chemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD in Physics from the University of Bristol.
The nature of reality is a key question in every philosophical tradition, and if we are curious enough as individuals existing within the temporal world, we may find ourselves compelled by our circumstances as human cognitive creatures to not only engage the reality we experience on a daily basis, but also to contemplate a variety of alternate realities, which exist only as potential variations of our current objective reality.
It is reasonable to conclude that in order to become aware of alternate realities, we must first allow ourselves to entertain the notion that it is possible to become aware of them, and then also to engage them through deliberate intention to expand our awareness. We have to be willing to explore beyond the limitations of our objective view of the world, and seek to open our hearts and minds to an expanded view of what an alternate reality might look like and how it would feel to be a part of it. Only when we place ourselves on the path of discovery, can we expect to encounter potential realities which might exist outside of our everyday view of our existence.
I know these ideas sound like they might be challenging to pursue, especially if you are unaccustomed to opening yourself to other possibilities, and if you are bogged down with ingrained habits from any number of limiting dogmatic institutions or strictly controlled belief systems like I was growing up, it can be very difficult to even suppose that anything else exists outside of our perceptual experiences as physical beings in a physical universe. The truth is that we often embrace the well-worn paths from our upbringing or limit ourselves to only those ideas which we can be demonstrated empirically to be true, without ever really questioning why or supposing that other ideas outside of those familiar to us could possibly have merit.
The way we begin to open ourselves to new ideas is to expand our awareness generally by letting go of our restrictive or limited views for a short time and to contemplate what the world might look like if we did not have these restrictions. We don’t have to abandon sobriety or toss out everything that we hold dear in one fell swoop, but rather, simply allow our hearts and minds to release us from the habitual embrace of what we currently know just for a brief period of time, and ask ourselves what other possible ideas might explain or account for our subjective experience of this moment.
It’s a small beginning that doesn’t require us to put forth that much effort, and with some regular attention to the practice, we may start to see how our willingness to simply THINK about other possibilities brings them slowly to the surface for us to examine. The key is to allow these thoughts to enter our minds briefly and to embrace the opportunity in our hearts just to see how they feel to us at that moment. With persistence, and an open approach to new ideas, we can begin to formulate a basis for further inquiry. Once we establish a routine of contemplation and openness to new ideas, we will naturally produce starting points for further investigation. Wherever our thoughts lead us, and in whatever direction our hearts point us, we can look and read about and pursue those beginnings and discover for ourselves what a variety of wonder and curiosity can produce for us to consider.
Whether or not this approach leads to genuine discovery or the opening to new ideas is entirely up to us to determine, and at the very least, it provides an opportunity to expand our inner resources, and enrich our experience of our existence in new ways.
After what has felt like almost a lifetime of contemplation and pursuing my curiosity in a whole variety of ways, every new experience now becomes an opening to a broader view of existence for me, and the persistent application of embracing each one with an open heart and mind has allowed me to expand my own ideas beyond anything I could have imagined before I began in earnest to contemplate the nature of my own reality on my own terms.
My most recent opening to new experience took the form of a public performance in Philadelphia at the Merriam Theater of an extraordinary production entitled, “Shen Yun.” Through a series of musical vignettes from a rich tradition of ancient dances and philosophical themes from over 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, a modern day interpretation created by “…an independent nonprofit organization based in New York City,” according to the program, brought together “leading Chinese artists from around the world,” in an effort to “revive authentic Chinese culture.”
You might think that a program which featured classical Chinese dance wouldn’t necessarily provide me with an opening to a broader view of my own personal reality, but quite the opposite turned out to be true. As an observer in the spectacle of “China’s rich cultural heritage,” it became quickly apparent to me that my participation in the event allowed me to enjoy “…one of humankind’s greatest treasures.” As the evening unfolded, I found myself profoundly engaged by the music, the movement, and the artistry of the performers.
Again, according to the program provided:
“The Shen Yun Orchestra delivered this musical experience by blending the singular beauty of Chinese melodies with the precision and power of the Western orchestra…Ancient instruments like the erhu and pipa lead the melody on top of a full Western orchestra—strings, woodwinds, and brass. It is the only orchestra in the world to combine these instruments as permanent members.”
By combining the artistry of modern day performance with the spirituality of an ancient Chinese culture, “…Shen Yun’s performers draw their spiritual inspiration from…a practice called Falun Dafa…also known as Falun Gong…rooted in China’s ancient spiritual traditions…(whose) practitioners strive to live by the principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.”
Every episode of the performance contained some jeweled offering to the audience, from the plentiful variety of spectacular costumes, to the exquisite beauty of the coordinated precision choreography, and unique special effects. A host of selections from thousands of years of Chinese mythology and history over several hours often solicited gasps of astonishment and delight from an international audience of enthusiastic theater goers. I found myself periodically overwhelmed by both the emotional and spiritual content of the stories, and at particular moments, on the verge of tears as I opened myself to the unfolding spectacle.
Of particular note were the episodes “Bestowing the Tao,” about the story of Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, another entitled, “The Dream,” which warned that our choice between good or evil would decide our fate, and the last two of the evening, “The Divine Path is Near,” which suggests that we are called to follow the divine path, and “Boundless Compassion,” which points out that we are “…following in the footsteps of the ancient spiritual traditions,” which presents our modern culture with great challenges, but promises that if we pursue these traditions with appropriate fervor,“…a new era of hope begins.”
This extraordinary evening of music, dance, and culture, when combined with a modern technological invention of an integrated digital background which “…allowed the performers to travel back and forth between the stage and the animated backdrop,” profoundly affected me in a number of ways. The ancient messages from the myths and stories came to life for me; the beauty of the dances enthralled me; the hypnotic effect of the animated background, and the mystical fog which appeared at the beginning of each half of the performance left me awestruck! The spiritual nature of our humanity was on such clear display, that I left the theater uplifted and moved beyond words.
With luck, and a continuing effort to remain open to new experiences and to gain additional insights from them as I progress in my efforts to more fully appreciate the human subjective experience of consciousness, I hope to provide a degree of inspiration to others who visit here in the days and weeks to come.
Warm regards….John H.
January has flown by at the speed of light it seems, and I have only today been able to find an opportunity to sit quietly at my desk and contemplate this posting–the first of the new year. It has been a tumultuous time for us all here in America over the past several months, and it has, no doubt, also been equally so for many others around the world. As Americans, we tend to look upon the events in our own native land as primarily our own, when it might be more precise describe them as world events, since we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world by virtue of our standing as a major force in the world. We may wish to turn our focus inward on our own country as a means of coming to terms with the circumstances of the world-at-large, but ultimately, we are, at some point, going to have to face up to the reality of eventually becoming a global community of human beings. I am not inclined to engage in political debates about the wisdom, virtues, or liabilities of becoming a global community of humans, and the purpose of this blog is far removed from such debates, but it is clear that as a sentient, cognitive, emotional, often irrational, historically contentious and radically philosophical and diverse community of humans, we are gradually going to have to acknowledge that our focus on the external world, on the world outside of our own personal subjective experience, will very likely require a much greater emphasis on understanding our internal world, if we are ever going to solve the problems facing us everywhere else.
The image above shows a most unique and thoughtful gift I received this year at our annual family Christmas gathering. Since we have such a large extended family group, for years now we have put everyone’s name in a hat and conducted a Pollyanna method for gift-giving, and our tradition has grown into an enormous barrel of fun as we not only scramble to find our recipient in a house full of celebrating members, but then we increase the torment by going around one-by-one and describing our gift to the gathered multitudes. As you might imagine, there are frequently choruses of “o-o-o-o-o-s” and “a-a-a-ah-h-h-s” as particularly fancy or interesting gifts are displayed, and occasionally, when a gift is clearly a mismatch with or some commentary on the receiver, chaos and laughter generally follow. My received gift of the writer’s quill and ink with a beautifully embossed journal met with a resounding cheer of approval from those present, and the acknowledgement that it would be particularly appropriate as a gift for ME, while not surprising to anyone, was a source of great delight for me as the grateful recipient. As someone who is historically sentimental and overtly emotional, I found myself oddly at a loss for words. The gift, in my heart and mind, clearly was much more one of gratitude for the acknowledgement as a writer, and I muddled through the description phase in a fairly unspectacular manner, only managing afterwards to give a heartfelt expression of thanks to my dear nephew for the sentiment the gift held for me.
After the holidays had settled down a bit, I once again turned to this gift and thought to write some message on the inner leaf as a first use of the quill. It seemed appropriate to me to invoke the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in view of the acknowledgement that all things contain elements of opposing energies, and in spite of our best efforts, each urgency in life has a time for it to flourish and a time when it wanes, but perhaps none more-so than when writing with a quill. I had some experience with similar ink pens in grammar school, which had the same metal point through which the ink would reach the paper, but the quill presents a unique challenge as the writer must gauge when to pause and when to dip the end into the ink bottle, and finding a method of presenting one’s thoughts in a reasonably consistent flow on the page takes patience and focus. I spent some time practicing on scraps of paper and experimented with my technique for some time, but eventually I concluded that it comes down to achieving a basic understanding of the dynamics of the process and then throwing caution to the wind in order to make any progress at all. What follows is an excerpt from my first entry in the journal. It’s a reasonably consistent flow in the thoughts expressed and a somewhat less consistent display of mastery with the quill:
“Indeed, of all the things that make us human, perhaps none is more important or prominent or significant than brain physiology. So many of our capacities are enabled by the brain, so much of our experience of the world is made possible by cognition–by the firing of neurons and the transfer of ions across barriers from one axon to the next dendrite over the synapses, which send the electrical impulses racing along the neural networks between brain regions.”
While recording these thoughts in the journal, it occurred to me that there was a time in our world when the quill was the one of the most common writing utensils in use for writers of every sort, and it became quickly apparent to me that my mind, having become accustomed to a much quicker pace and a much wider variety of methods for recording its machinations, was clearly unhappy with the slow, steady, and almost draconian pace which the quill forces on the writer. My tendency to change my mind several times in the course of a paragraph or even in a sentence or within a phrase, caused me much consternation when I realized that implementing these changes would require that I either cross something out or inevitably to rewrite entire sections. We have been spoiled by our modern editing tools and alternative methods of recording our thoughts, in ways that allow for changes to occur with very little fanfare.
On the box, the manufacturers in France chose to quote Victor Hugo, who rightly points out that writing with a quill has “the lightness of the wind,” but may, if the writer has some degree of skill in the subject, end up presenting thoughts which act with “the power of lightning.” There have been authors and creative souls of every sort through the ages whose words did indeed act with the power of lightning, and who also recorded those words using the quill and ink. They have my unmitigated admiration for pursuing their thoughts in such a way, and with such patience and determination required just to set them down on paper, let alone empower them with the strength of lightning.
I have recently been at somewhat of a loss for words. There are many thoughts tumbling around in my brain, though, and I am hoping to present a great many more of them for my readers here in the months to come. I hope you will return often to review those I have already recorded, and add your own thoughts on any entries you feel speak with even a hint of that lightning.
With best wishes to everyone here at WordPress.com…….John H.