Dialectical path 1.1: aesthetic patterning

I am close to finishing an interesting book by Frank Wilczek, A Beautiful Question . He along with some colleagues won the Nobel Prize in physics for, I think, understanding the ideas of quark confinement by the strong force and asymptotic freedom (an interesting idea, that the closer the particles, the less force binding them together). His book provides a review of the development of the standard model in physics and work towards a unified theory with an eye towards the beauty of the mathematical formulas and our clear understanding of nature. He writes for a general audience so I did understand a good bit here but also lost the thread several times, understandable given my last educational exposure to physics and calculus was 1968 in college.
Mr. Wilczek brings in some interesting philosophical notions as he endeavors to explain some esoteric material to us non-mathematically inclined and I appreciate it. One notion is the principle of complementarity: in a relativistic universe many ways to conceptualize a phenomenon exist, some of which are mutually exclusive. Take his example that light can be conceptualized and measured as either a particle or a wave but not both at the same time. This principle strikes me as analogous to gestalt principles, e.g., the face-vase picture, and applicable to the mystic-positivistic event horizons with which I am working.

face-vase, particle-wave, mystic-positivistic

face-vase, particle-wave, mystic-positivistic

Considering the epistemological biases in how religion and science handle error and change, it is difficult to understand how they could be seen in a unified view (and so must be dealt with dialectically). When religious laws are broken, well, that is a sin and the person is in error. Some people say they know of the corrective consequences in the next world, but meanwhile the earth continues to spin around the sun and people keep on behaving naturally. When scientific laws are broken, we understand that the law itself is faulty because our knowledge is faulty and so work to understand the world better and thereby modify the law. Errors and change are important in both perspectives but handled very differently.
So is there a guide to help find a dialectical path connecting between the mystic and positivistic? Intuitive connections certainly occur frequently enough to suggest so. I have written before about how the chemist August Kekule, who was trying with others to understand the chemistry of the benzene ring, dreamed of the ourobouros, the mythic snake circled around to grasp its own tail, and so understood the ring structure of the benzene molecule. Many scientists tell similar tales of inspiration when taking a walk (Wilczek), watching a movie with his wife (Francois Jacob), or daydreaming on a streetcar (Einstein).
But return to Wilczek’s notion of finding beauty in theoretical formulations for understanding reality. This is dear to my heart because it brings the idea of aesthetics to the forefront of our humanity. I believe it is our sense of beauty that best guides our dialectical path. Art, being a creative and symbolic rendition of some vitally felt form, does not observe the process of error and change except in its composition as the artist seeks to construct a whole, coherent, and vital form congruent with his or her artistic vision. We are gifted patterners; neuroscientists tell us that we are excellent at finding patterns and creating them. And some patterns are constructed aesthetically guided by some features of symbolic creation, say, along the lines of Thomas Acquinas’s 3 principles (as expressed by a young Stephen Dedalus aka James Joyce), unity (unitas), coherence (harnonius) and vitality (luminas). Wiczek’s presentation of beautiful equations, e.g., Paul Dirac’s mentioned here before, is again an esoteric, highly intellectual view of rare aesthetic, and while it may not be artistic vision, it is vision, one of humanity’s better ones.
Daniel Dennett posed the question of what to save if you have a choice between saving a scientific document, say Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Einstein’s E=MC2, or a work of art, say Michelangelo’s Pieta or Picasso’s Guernica, and answers that he would save the art because it is unique and irreplaceable and we will always recover some increased understanding of nature’s patterns and rules.
In one direction we find the aesthetic spectrum from mathematical beauty and in another orthogonal direction is the beauty we find in nature, not in understanding its orderliness, but in its connection to the mystic. Again, what guides us to explore the space between is art. A couple of posts ago I wondered when in our evolution we began to apprehend the divine, say in the landscape where Stonehenge or Glastonbury were built. An even more basic question would be when did we begin to see beauty in the view?

Let's build a henge here.

Let’s build a henge here.

Do other animals, other primates look at the land and light and weather and sigh with romantic satisfaction? I am pretty sure they do not feel religious, but . . .? Is this the precursor to seeing the divine as we transition from luminous to the numinous?

What's it to be, luminous or numinous?

What’s it to be, luminous or numinous?

Travel on.

U R what U eat &

what you eat contributes to the evolutionary constraints on what genes bubble up in the gene pool and flow down to your progeny.  I had not planned on posting until after Thanksgiving (next post on the dialectical path)  but I think a report on a genetic study of old European bones deserves notice.  Here is one version from the NYT:


Researchers analyzed genes from 230 individuals who lived from2300 to 8500 years ago.  The earliest population were hunter-gatherers, previously studied from the oldest bones found from 45,000 years ago, and then about 8500 years ago agriculturalists from the Near East moved into Europe.  About 4500 years ago a group called the Yamnaya (new to me) moved west from the steppes of Russia.  The genes of this last group seemed to have increased the height of Northern Europeans.  One of the biggest findings though concerned the late rise of the gene responsible for lactose tolerance, about 4000 years ago, and it spread rapidly.  Further genetic changes ensued from a diet built upon wheat, including risk for irritable bowel syndrome along with the capacity to extract important proteins from the wheat.  And diet also helped shape the genetic changes for a shift to lighter skin color.  An enormous study when you consider the sample size and what it took to collaborate and gain access to all of the bones and then the analysis and comparison within the group over time and with moderns.  Wow!  And so Happy Thanksgiving.  Hope everyone has a safe holiday.


Does lobster salad in Ireland contribute to the rise of genes for a literate life? Yes!

Our human scale

A quick post in a mostly positivistic direction. I have written before that our ability to expand the spatio-temporal scale of our knowledge is a wonderful capacity, and I write today to say I had no idea how true that was until I read Frank Wilczeck’s book, A Beautiful Question. Before going there, let’s describe what our basic human scale is. Our life is certainly local to this planet with its day, seasons, and year plus we live a much abbreviated span when compared to earth’s geology. (Gene lines are considerably longer). Our sensory organs set strict parameters on what energies we are able to perceive, visible light in the electromagnetic spectrum, 20-10,000 Hz in the acoustic range, a plethora of chemical scents (last estimate upwards to a million or more), and touch quite sensitive but also quite immediate. We can see with some comprehension layers of stone laid down over time in cliffs and canyons, sea fossils on mountain tops, extinct dinosaur bones, etc. We can also see with open amazement the sun, moon, planets and stars. Telescopes have enlarged our view and understanding considerably and we now “see” back in time to maybe 14 billion years ago. We can detect the background radiation still echoing from the big bang way back whenever.

Likewise the microscope has enabled us to see at a much smaller scale, electron microscopes even smaller, and now particle accelerators allow surmises at even smaller scales. This brings us to this quote from Mr. Wilczeck:

The magnification of this [artist’s] image is approximately1027, so the region it depicts is roughly as small, compared to humans, as a human is small compared to the visible universe. The fluctuations turn over in about 10-24 second. That time is far smaller, compared to a second, than is a second compared to the time since the Big Bang.

Scales beyond our ken, larger and smaller—wow! The Sumerians with their cuneiform numbers or Egyptians with hieroglyphs or even Pythagoras with his geometry and music had no idea the cultural learning curve they started would bring us round to here, though to be fair, Pythagoras quite mystically believed that the universe was composed of numbers. I used to think I was like a chipmunk in a ground hog hole, and then one in a bear hole, and now I believe I am like a chipmunk lost in some marvelous cavern. Travel on and on and on and . . . .


Mr. Plato, are you out there? Is that you, Mr. Pythagoras?


Finding a dialectical path between positivism and mysticism 1.0

Herein starts an ongoing, albeit irregular, serial with this title and theme.


Consider what we know about life (considerable especially since Crick, Watson, Monod and others). Consider how we know it (and how very technical, even esoteric this has become). Then consider what you know about life and how you know it (just what you know now excluding what we know). Let’s call these two perspectives the ‘social’ and the ‘personal’. For Homo sapiens what we know seems enormous due to our empathic and symbolic abilities. Social knowledge then comes in the forms of religion, art, science, governance, memetic culture, etc. What you or I personally know individuates within our life span; it grows from our somatic biological roots. Thus it depends upon each person’s neurosocial integrity; personal knowledge is further constrained by our life life span but also by a person’s social place. This shapes the content of our information capabilities such as pattern recognition, sense of the mystic, critical assessment, symbolic repertoire and its correspondent conventionality and creativity, and learning of experiential contingencies, i.e., experience. (A society does not have experience, it has instead what we might call culture).

All life is local. Elementary particles and their constituent parts, electromagnetic energies, gravity, dark matter and dark energy are present throughout the universe albeit in clumps. Life is present only in extraordinary cosmic locales and so far we are sure of only this one.

we are all mutants

we are all mutants

Now consider what we don’t know about life and why. (I would go on to add the consideration of what you or I don’t know about life, but that can of worms must be set aside for awhile). We do not know how life began here or how it will end. We do not know about other life in the wide universe. We cannot know another’s conscious experience. We do not know these things because our perspective is limited by space-time scale and the integrity of individual lives. We seek to expand beyond our space-time and personal scale through religion and science, both powered by imagination and based upon an assessed value of ignorance. With one we seek to go beyond the limits of personal knowledge, beyond an individual life span, to what happens, if anything, to our person before birth and after death. With the other we seek to go beyond the limits of or, better, to expand the limits of our social knowledge of life, our lives, our place in the cosmos and of course, the cosmos itself.

I make free use of the metaphor of an event horizon, i.e., that boundary of a black hole where the information within cannot be perceived due to the gravitational force containing it. This is because I find other sorts of event horizons limiting our information, though less because of gravity than because of some other exigencies of our world. So the event horizon for personal knowledge is marked by mysticism and the event horizon for social knowledge is marked by positivism. Let me explain here a bit. Personal knowledge is necessarily limited by one’s life span. We can follow William James and explore up to the moment of death (perhaps a bit further, see my post on 10 January 2015), and we can imagine/apprehend our existence before and after that span, but in fact, we cannot know this socially, except through the culture of religion, so our personal knowing reaches an event horizon. What really happened to me (did I experience) before birth and will happen (that I experience) after death? Following William James, this is apprehended in most varieties of religious experience as ‘mystical’—the name I give to the event horizon containing each human life.

vital energy flowing

vital energy flowing

In terms of social knowledge we approach our life and our world most comprehensively, most efficaciously empirically with the natural philosophy of positivism that then follows. What can we know about how everything happens and how may we escape the limitations of personal knowledge? Our social knowledge expands as civilization and culture develop, and while the event horizon of positivism follows outwardly accordingly, we push intelligently (we can only hope) and assiduously against it still. Given this formulation of personal and social knowledge and their respective event horizons, believing we are looking at a gem with many facets and in the importance of seeing it whole, I follow a dialectical path between mysticism and positivism. Maybe that is why my mind feels so unsettled at times, as if my neural synchronization was oscillating like a dog’s with his nose out the car window.    Traveling on.

Quick post on Stonehenge

A brief post stimulated by a recent story on the NYT page (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/10/science/stonehenge-begins-to-yield-its-secrets.html?hpw&rref=science&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=1) on recent findings in and around Stonehenge, which, we are informed, is not technically a henge–oh, well.  Archeologists have excavated a nearby home site dated to 1000 years before the earliest construction of Stonehenge. It is by a spring which has algae on rocks that dries to a bright pink and I refuse to believe that this has anything to do with the selection of the site these 5 or 6 thousand years ago.

from within the circle, looking east at the heel stone

from within the circle, looking east at the heel stone

Anyway, when talking with an archeologist friend here in Virginia, he had heard the reports and said a real question was when this area was felt to be “sacred”.  He added Americans love this stuff, and ok, we do, and many wonder why this area was chosen for extensive constructions and graves back in the day, not just Stonehenge but the surrounding areas and just up the River Avon, Woodhenge.  This begs the question, however, of when and how in our evolution, we (Homo sapiens) came to apprehend the sacred.  I look out at our farm and beautiful windy days like today and think, This is beautiful and I am lucky to be here, and I may say that Gaia is remarkable and that someplaces are incredibly special, what with ley lines, terrain, etc.  But to feel that a place has a connection to or participates in the divine is something else again, e,g, Mt. Fujiyama, Croagh Patrick, the spring at Glastonbury, the caves at Delphi, etc.  Most moderns think (?) that you build a church or create an altar, and thereby create a sacred space.  The indigenous Americans found/find that very strange–how can the sacred be so dissociated from the land? I still want to know more about the evolutionary development of sacredness.

Two additional notes: Just down the road from the newly uncovered habitation is a good bed and breakfast in the town of Amesbury.  If you visit Stonehenge you will be able to walk around it but not within it, unless you plan ahead and apply for a spot to walk in it before or after the normal business hours.  Well worth it.

Lastly I will post in the next day or 3 the first post in a sporadic series entitled, “Finding a dialectical path between mysticism and positivism.”  Be sure to stay tuned and to alert all your friends and neighbors.  And now to travel on.

2 quibbles, 1 new & 1 old

My new quibble is with myself.  I have realized that I misnamed this blog when I started it around 2 years ago.  Instead of “Biological Roots of Humanity,” which refers more to the origin of our species, I would have done better to name it “The Biological Roots of Our Humanity.”  This would refer to our human qualities and abilities, sort of like the biological roots of dogginess as opposed to wolfishness.  A small difference but a significant one that I have figured out after only 2 years (I never claimed to be quick, or at least not recently).  There is not much argument any more outside of fundamentalists’ circles that our species arose through evolution, i.e., that we have biological roots.  So my argument is that whatever it is that composes our humanity, e.g., art, religion, governance, science, etc., has biological roots (in this facet I stand with the sociobiologists), and this brings me to my old quibble now with Mr. Jourdain in his book, Music,The Brain, and Ecstasy, that I mentioned in a recent previous post or two.

Consider this passage on page 307:  “An organism must be able to look far into the future, and to remember far into the past, to make possible the give-now-and-receive-later calculus of cooperation.  Only the symbolic minds of human beings are up to the job.”  Oh my, this is exactly what I have written against here these past two years and talked about for 45 years. Peruse past posts and you will see plenty of cooperation evidenced by other species.  We have been aware of our commonalities here at least since Darwin, if you are not blinded by the mythic uniqueness of humanity (the species).  It would be perhaps more accurate to say that only humans, with their special symbolic capabilities, manage to kill so many of our own kind with incredibly destructive weapons over cultural differences and not over resources.  But cooperation?  Read this blog; even better read books often mentioned here by Frans de Waal for a true glimpse into the capacities of other animals.

in the last post I passed over the insufficiency of Jourdain’s discussion of ‘meaning’ in music.  That it is insufficient may be traced to the distorted lenses of humanity’s (our qualities) special abilities that have arisen without precedent.  I will also add that any discussion of our humanity must include not just the usual focus on our symbolic capabilities but also our empathic ones, and that goes double for any discussion of aesthetics.

Now it is time for me to travel on.

Cooperate? Yeah, I cooperate.  What's it to ya?

Cooperate? Yeah, I cooperate. What’s it to ya?

the musical brain and artistic import

A longer post here than usual:

So I have finished Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy; not sorry I read it and appreciate the opportunity to quibble. Chapter 7 discusses musical understanding and he contrasts the meaning between music and language. I liked his presentation of deep and surface structure (from Chomsky) and have long used this in my thinking. I did not find his presentation of “meaning” very knowledgeable, but then I have recently read Patel’s Music, Language and the Brain. Patel does not question the difference between the deep structures of language and music so much as to hypothesize what these might be.

Both Jourdain and Patel base their thinking on empirical studies, clinical and experimental. To no surprise of the initiated, Susanne Langer explored the differences between art and language through her philosophical musings back in the 1950s and further researched their biological implications in her 3 volume Mind: An essay on human feeling. If fortunate, read Langer’s 1957 Problems of Art, a clear exposition of the difference between discursive symbols, exemplified by language, and presentational symbols, exemplified by art. (For further understanding along the philosophical vein, read her Philosophy in a New Key and especially her aesthetic statement in Feeling and Form). Presentational symbols are virtual constructions in which each element has no meaning independent of the total gestalt, as opposed to discursive elements that are lexical items of steady and stable meaning no matter the context. Further, presentational symbols are then not constrained by the necessities of linearization in the form of a grammar transforming deep to surface structure, e.g., sentences. Instead, presentational symbols express some symbolic formulation of an experience in a complex, contextual, non-linear structure, i.e., painting, music (yes, I know music is half linear but the elements depend upon the total gestalt for significance–makes it hard to study empirically), sculpture, architecture, dance, drama, poetry, fiction, etc. In Problems of Art Langer determines that linguistic meaning is just that and another term is needed for the deep structure of art and this she terms ‘import’.

Our challenge, then, is to understand how the artistic brain generates and expresses import and how this is different from linguistic meaning. Oh, I could expand here a long time but strive for short posts. Let me just start with a discussion of hippocampal functions as perceptual processing flows back to front into areas for action, i.e., motoric behaviors, contrasted with the cortical fasciculi running between posterior and anterior areas, e.g., arcuate fasciculus, superior longitudinal fasciculus, and uncinate fasciculus.

Remember that the hippocampus determines old and new information, thereby initiating mnemonic input and retrieval, as well as cooperating with limbic structures involved in valence, e.g., does it feel good or bad or what? Information from the visual, auditory, and bodily orientation systems converge for integration in the entorhinal cortex of the temporal lobe before merging into the hippocampus that then communicates with frontal areas.


In a post of long ago (try 2/14/14& 4/11/14), I discussed old/new processing across species. Basically, as the brain evolves with a MEMBRAIN and its interior mind, old/new shifts from a concrete and immediate context to virtual one displaced from the time/space context. Thinking about musical import helps to understand how this shift happens.

Consider again the long cortical fasciculi. The superior longitudinal fasciculus is a complex group of fibers arising from the O-T-P (occipital-temporal-parietal) conjunction and communicating with frontal areas. The arcuate fasciculus is a part of that and communicates specifically the motor patterns for speech on the left side and, somewhat more speculatively, motor patterns for empathic communication on the right. Other parts serve to help control attentional processes.

Sobo_1909_670_-_Uncinate_fasciculusarcuate fasciculus

The uncinate fasciculus arises in the anterior temporal lobe where it merges through the entorhinal cortex into the hippocampus and then communicates with prefrontal areas.

The idea is this: the hippocampus is bound to ambient processing of the old/new in the here and now and survival and social; the cortical fasciculi permit the processing of old/new in the mind with mental structures in the subjective interiority. While the arcuate fasciculi carry information pertaining to the surface structures to be expressed and received, the other fasciculi contribute to the construction of deep structures, i.e., linguistic meaning and artistic import, using old/new information the definition of which is not constrained by ambient and emotional conditions and is controlled by the processes of symbolic generation.


What about music? Like all art or presentational symbols, its import comprises experiential information from the ambient and emotions in a whole gestalt that has been constructed through control of hippocampal mediation, e.g., the autobiographical associations with the tune as well as the emotional arousal, and the non-immediate, now virtual mental forms here presumed to be mediated by cortical fasciculi. Aesthetic sensibility typically is understandably more right sided given its focus on the present context. This is in contrast to linguistic meaning that is more left sided given its focus on contextually independent elements. Music, especially harmony and melody, derives from the aesthetic processing of sounds to render artistic import either for reception (quite common) or expression (not so much), thereby rendering some vital emotional knowledge about life into communicable form. And then we have ear worms, segments of surface structure looping probably through the arcuate fasciculi until something else rings in its place. Listen up and travel on.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Lucy . . . .

Lucy in the sky with diamonds, Lucy . . . .

Another prehistoric find

The Nazca culture flourished in Peru around 100 CE (+/- 400 years).  They were agriculturalists who built aqueducts and constructed the famous Nazca lines and geoglyphs.  These were done by removing soil to reveal  white stone underneath.  I knew about the geoglyphs but there are also many straight lines the significance of which we don’t understand (not that we really understand the geoglyphs either).  A researcher showed that a large group of people could make one of these figures in a short time and without any aerial perspective.  Here’s one;


So now we go to recent reports about newly discovered figures made of earthen mounds in Kazakstan. (Link to NYT story: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/03/science/nasa-adds-to-evidence-of-mysterious-ancient-earthworks.html?hpw&rref=science&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=1).  These are also large figures, more geometric than glyphic though one is an elaborate 3 legged swastika.  The evidence points to their construction by a nomadic culture around 5000 years ago.  This is different from other large prehistoric structures like Stonehenge or the Pyramids that were built by settled agronomists.  These Kazakstan figures are not that elaborate but still show good engineering of straight lines.  No word yet if they are oriented to any astronomical events.  They are curious. Here is the largest:


Their discovery and pictures were enabled by Google and NASA satellite photos.  There is a neolithic site nearby where the constructors may have lived as they wandered with the seasons.  Much we do not know.  Travel on.