Re-reading Ramachandran

I have been pondering how to go further towards a neural model of art-making, so I re-read the two chapters on art in V. S. Ramachandran’s book, The Telltale Brain.  As I reviewed in my post on 3/20/18, this is a very interesting book; Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order.  While I had some quibbles about the book in general, I gave him credit for having two chapters on art, which is two more than most books on neuroscience have, and they are interesting chapters, so I re-read them.

I will focus today on two quibbles, one minor and one major, and then applaud and expand one theme he carries forward in these chapters.  The minor quibble is easy and common.  When he talks about art, he is only discussing paintings with a heavy emphasis on the audience’s engagement at that.  Many books that touch on this topic show the same constraints. In part this is due to the extensive research into the visual system, so that we are able to transfer that knowledge to ideas on art appreciation.  It is also due to the difficulty in exploring the compositional process painters go through as they paint.  More distressing, though, is the assumption that art=painting, thereby ignoring music, literature, sculpture, architecture, etc.  The remedy to this quibble is increased awareness of aesthetic theory, e.g., everyone should read Langer’s Philosophy in a New Keyand Feeling and Formand increased knowledge in the efforts to understand other art forms, e.g., much is done on music.

My major quibble is a more of a problem.  When I re-read these chapters I found a passage where Ramachandran states that art is not important in our evolution:  “the production of art itself does not have survival value” and “its role is pure enjoyment.”  What? Even if true, enjoyment has survival value, else how do you explain a neural system uncovered by Jaak Panksepp that supports play and feelings of joy?  Also, humans (and our cousins) have been making art for maybe 100,000+ years, every society and culture has established artistic traditions, and as Ellen Dissayanake showed in her book Homo Aestheticus, art is ubiquitous in human affairs.  Limiting the consideration of art to the fine art of painting, as Ramachandran does, prevents adequate intellectual consideration of the phenomena.  So our artistic capability has certainly resulted from evolutionary changes.

This can be complicated.  What do we call an evolutionary product that does not contribute to adaptive success? Pinker and Bloom give an example of blood’s redness—the color is only a result of hemoglobin being iron-based; if we were lobsters with copper-based hemoglobin, our blood would be green.  So our blood’s redness is called an evolutionary spandrel after architectural spandrels that result from arching pillars joining the roof and creating a triangular space that does not contribute to the supporting structure even if it does yield a decorative space:

Spandrel

Elsewhere Ramachandran states that art-making is done by “deliberate hyperbole and distortion of reality”.  Well, that does make art seem incidental.  As you may guess, I think it is counter to reality. Art is, I believe as Langer conceptualized, a high level intellectual activity, the abstraction of the idea of emotion, and a complex sharing of deeply felt vital experience.  Consider this:  we grow pumpkins.  One or two flowers on a vine develop into a fruit, while the other blossoms contribute pollen and draw pollinators to the plant.  Are those non-fruiting blossoms useless?  Do they not support the production of the fruit needed to carry on the genetic strain?  Are they just redundant and back-up in case other blossoms fail?  What determines that?  I think even calling art a spandrel is not apt, and Ramachandran belittles art beyond that.

However, in this interesting book, he does give us some pearls.  Ramachandran states that our neuroscience has advanced to the stage wherein we can speculate about how our brains do art, and not many say that so clearly.  He provides a couple of goals for our quest.  One is that we should know how to distinguish between real art and kitsch, but I am not sure that is a worthy one.  I like a second one better.  He draws from his heritage to discuss a word/concept from Sanskrit, “rasa” that means to capture the essence or spirit of a thing.  To understand art, Ramachandran says in contradiction to his belittling elsewhere, we need to understand its ‘rasa’.  Okay then.

He talks about ‘Aha!’ moments when we apprehend the rasa in a work of art and thinks maybe this occurs when cortical processing becomes synchronized and so excites the limbic system to a positive state.  Could be, but this also seems a bit too simple.  Ramachandran discusses 9 laws of aesthetics that he draws from neural functioning.  These are interesting but limited by his debilitated view of art as not intellectual, focus on the visual system and audience experience, and lack of consideration of the artist’s process of production.  Aesthetic joy is a real phenomena, sometimes ‘Aha!’, more often a quiet wave of reflection, and we do need to understand how the artist achieves it, how the audience receives it, and the symbolic forms that convey it.  Ramachandran gives some ideas about the neural structures and functions supporting these, nothing earth-shaking, so maybe I will post more on this after a few more re-reads and further pondering.

Finishing up, Ramachandran gives two examples of art appreciation, or lack thereof. He talks of how a Victorian English art critic disparaged the statue of Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance—the dance that creates the universe) as savagery, not art.  Ain’t it funny how ignorant imperialists are?  But long ago the locals watched a bearded European stand entranced in front of the statue and then begin to contort his body to mirror the various postures Shiva assumes.  They thought this was a bit crazy until someone realized that the man was August Rodin, and the sculptor was appreciating the artistry involved in that statue.

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Shiva as Lord of the Dance

The last example comes from Ramachandran’s discussion of how nervous systems like exaggerated forms, thus explaining the power of caricatures.  He details how Tinbergen, pioneer ethologist, discovered that gull chicks pecked at the red spot on the mother’s bill to get her to feed them, and that they would peck at almost anything with a red spot, but they would peck the most at a stick with 3 red stripes painted on it. Again, this illustrates how our brains process stimuli, even objects that are distorted far from reality can provoke the strongest response.  Ramachandran compares these gull chicks to art connoisseurs who chase the newest fad. Now I have to like that.

Well, time to travel on to the next view of our biological roots.

animal attachment and grief

I have started Frans de Waal’s book Mama’s Last Hugabout animal feelings and making the case that we, humans and other animals, experience many of these in common.  The story of Mama is quite interesting.  She was a remarkable chimpanzee who was the organizing force in her group for many years, not because she was physically formidable, though for a female she was, but because of her personality and social IQ.  Her human researchers came to respect her a great deal and were quite attached, so that when her death was immanent, one of her old human friends came to say good-bye.  Their reunion was heartfelt on both sides and she died some few days later. De Waal uses this story to introduce several facts about chimpanzees, their humans and how research is conducted/interpreted.

Then De Waal goes where few have gone before—he discusses how other animals view death.  What a scientist, doing the research and communicating it to us.   He first recounts what the humans did after Mama’s death.  Breaking with protocol the humans let her body lie in state, as it were, for the other chimps to view.  The males hit and tossed the body as if to wake her up; the females were gentler, lifting an arm or leg and letting it drop, looking into her mouth, etc. When one female tried to move her body, a foster daughter, whom Mama had raised after her friend had died leaving her infant behind, protested and prevented the body being moved.

De Waal recounts another observation wherein a younger chimp came up to an elder female who had been quite sick for some time, looked into her eyes and gave a scream of alarm.  Another chimp, too far removed to have observed this interaction, took up the cry of alarm and others followed.  A few minutes later the sick chimp fell to the floor and passed away.

De Waal gives many more anecdotes about how animals experience the death of another and he cites Barbara King’s 2013 book How Animals Grievein establishing observational guidelines for determining if an animal is grieving, e.g., a marked change in behavior.  Many species, including most mammals and some birds, show such changes.  Animals show awareness that the other is dead and if they were attached, they grieve.  Chimpanzee and cetacean mothers have been known to carry/support their dead offspring around for days.  Elephants visit the site of another’s death and pick up and hold a remnant, e.g., a bone or a tusk, of the deceased (remember this happens repeatedly over a long passage of time) and even pass it around to others in the herd.  And of course, we have many stories of dogs waiting for their dead humans’ return in the spot where their reunion used to occur, e.g., Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Working from a human’s sense of mortality, i.e., our awareness of our own demise, that we cannot confirm in other species, de Waal suggests perspicaciously that these others have at least a sense of finality—that a life is irrevocably over.  Consider how such a sense of finality works when an animal loses someone to whom they are attached.  Jaak Panksepp discusses the biological basis of attachment and loss in a chapter of his wonderful book, Affective Neuroscience.   Two systems operate in an oppositional tandem, one he calls the PANIC system that deals with separation from caregivers and another that inhibits that system in response to renewed social comfort.  The two systems depend upon different neurotransmitters yet still interact quite a bit.

Panksepp makes several interesting points.  The social comfort system is based upon one of the opiate receptor systems and the oxytocin system.  When the PANIC system is aroused, that motivates seeking social contact and comfort, i.e., gregariousness.  When social comfort is obtained, the opiate system inhibits the PANIC system. (Consider the important factor of joblessness and depressed communities in our current opiod epidemic).  Mammals become attached to a home location, so that just being ‘home’ reduces separation distress. (Our mostly warm feelings upon returning to the old home place may be another manifestation of this). Different species and different individuals within a species have different sensitivities to social distress. The famous example of the two voles, one monogamous and one not, show different sensitivities here.  Also, in general males are less sensitive to separation distress, presumably mediated by testosterone, than females (this in most species) and we are all less affected by separation as we age.  All of these phenomena reflect the neurochemical balances in our brains and body.

Panksepp cites research showing that chicks give a distinctive peep when distressed and that putting a mirror in their enclosure or petting them reduces the frequency of those peeps because the chicks ‘see’ or feel that they are not alone.  Most interestingly, listening to music also calms the PANIC system and so represents a form of social comfort.  Panksepp and others have studied how some music gives us ‘chills’, a sign of distress, and also warms us up, a sign of social comfort.  That music operates at such a basic level in our neurological systems is of profound interest.  Remember that Alzheimers’ patients often keep musical memories better than other sorts of memories—our brains preserve this form of social connectedness even as other functions deteriorate.

I always learn something new when I review sections of Panksepp’s book.  In this instance, the social regulation systems, i.e., PANIC and social connection/comfort, are anciently tied to the thermoregulation system that promotes homeostasis (thus all mammals share something of this).  Music, as it interacts with these systems, chills or warms us; it motivates small variations around the homeostatic range, and this feels good (or lovely or beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, etc.).  He finishes his chapter 14 with this, that some music generates “a wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion”.  (Hmmm, did he love listening to Americana and Celtic tunes like I do now?)  But also, we animals grieve with loss, knowing the other is finally gone yet still yearning for more contact, and that helps us maintain our homeostatic balance set in place over the years of social comfort with our intimates.  So Greyfriar’s Bobby, that wonderful dog who waited for his human to return from work for years after the human’s death, was listening to the neural music of attachment and grief and keeping it steady as she goes.

I will conclude this post with an observation by Susanne Langer (of course) who said that humans’ distinctive minds began when we realized that our lives are but single acts with a beginning and an end.  Knowing this began a cascade of insight into our existence and understanding of our ownmortality.  And reflecting on this illuminates how this sense/knowledge of our ownmortality lies at the heart of much cultural development, including our religion and philosophy, as we share our feelings about cope with the loss of others and ourselves.  And our science helps us to understand this more deeply.  Travel on.

 

How we might think about biology and beauty

I have been thinking about this article in the NYT for a few weeks now.  I feel I should write about it but what?  So here goes. This is another story about the orthodox notion that beauty is not actually a product of evolution, but wait a minute, maybe it is: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/magazine/beauty-evolution-animal.html.  Ferris Jabr wrote this longish piece and it is worth reading.  He highlights a number of examples of beauty in the animal world and one scientist in particular who believes that some other animals besides humans have a sense of aesthetics.  Most other researchers scoff at this notion because beauty seems to play so little a role in evolution, believing, I guess, that what we perceive as beauty in nature is more a simple byproduct of other adaptations.  This falls, then, into one of my favorite categories these days, that of an evolutionary spandrel.

What is that, I hear some ask?  The concept of a spandrel is borrowed from architecture where it denotes the space between an arch, ceiling and any supporting pillars.  As such a spandrel does not contribute to the structure, though architects soon learned to fill the space with decorative art.  Here is a diagram:

Spandrel

So an evolutionary spandrel is an ontogenetic structure that does not contribute to the organism’s successful adaptation and continuance of the genetic stream.  A simple example I have read is the color of our blood.  The redness has no adaptive significance; it is a spandrel to the use of iron-based hemoglobin for oxygen transport.  If we were a lobster, that has a copper based blood, we would have green blood.

A prominent example under discussion here is the bowerbird.  The male builds an elaborate nest that is used only to attract a female’s attention and not for egg laying.  Once the female approaches the male’s nest, and they are elaborate with many bits of shell, pebbles, and whatever can be found to decorate the approach, the male must then dance successfully enough to entice the female to copulate.  Then another nest is built.  Does the male bowerbird’s nest building contribute to its reproductive fitness, albeit by increasing chances of mating, or is it a spandrel?  Nest building is metabolically expensive and this kind attracts predators as well as females.  Could it be an anachronism left from an earlier adaptation wherein the male actually built a functional nest, i.e., used for egg hatching and young rearing, which was replaced by a behavioral dance?  That is the tenor of this debate.

Orthodox theory has it that sexual ornamentation, which can be quite extreme, e.g., bird of paradise and peacock tail feathers, and sexual signaling, e.g., the grouse dance, indicates the robust health of the male, i.e., a better mate. This would mean these features contribute directly to evolutionary fitness and so would not be a spandrel. To say, as Richard Prum does, that these features are a contribution to the evolution of beauty elevates beautiful features to a non-spandrel level.  And surprisingly, I learned from Jabr’s article that Darwin himself did not think that evolutionary fitness was useful in explaining all adaptive features. He thought that besides natural selection, sexual selection played a significant role in shaping organisms; indeed, that males developed ornamentation and signaling behaviors to fit or match the females’ “standard of beauty”, as Darwin put it.  There you have it, from the godfather of evolutionary science himself, though most scientists beginning even back then through today scoff at the notion.

There are two issues for me here.  One is the nature of beauty, of how we perceive it and what makes something beautiful, and the other is the nature of art, which I take to be a symbolic form, i.e., it has a surface structure composed by us (could be other species’ partake of this effort as well like the whale songs from last post) and a deep structure of some vital import about our experience.  Now consider Jabr’s words:  “There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”  Oh boy, that is exactly the issue here, i.e., the hidden links between surface and deep structures.

Consider seeing something beautiful in nature, like a sunset or storm over the sea or a striking bird.  Here are some photos of mine to ponder:

IMG_0275

Odysseus watched the sunset from Calypso’s isle yearning for home.

IMG_0307

Odysseus struggled through storms to reach his home on Ithaca.

The surface structure is the image but what is the deep structure?  What is the basis for our aesthetic appreciation of such scenes?  Further, how does a poet, e.g., Homer, transmute this into a beautiful image composed of words?  Here is another of an indigo bunting that visits our farm in the spring-how is it we see its beauty and how do the female buntings view it?

DSCN0750

A handsome and rare indigo bunting

To be clear, I do not know the answer here, but I have adopted two canalizations for my thinking about these sorts of issues.  The first is, of course, Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a vital form, symbolic certainly but what makes the form art is its conveyance of vitality, e.g., the experience and energy of a particular life.  The second I extrapolate from Jacques Monod’s understanding of life processes as furthering itself through fitting components together, i.e., a molecule fits with another and contributes to energy control.  Many molecular combinations fit with others to contribute to life’s complexity, and to further the stream of life, each fitting must fit with many others in a sort of closure achieved by completing an image, like the Necker cube, only this closure is the underlying form of a biological organism.  Showing even more complexity, following Susan Oyama, the organism’s form and place in the hereditary stream is a complex fitting of a developmental system comprising life and niche, the means by which ontogeny progresses along “life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future” like a musical symphony advances some grand waves of temporal experience through auditory forms.

Vital import and fitness certainly seem relevant here, but consider another concept, that of intentionality, because it plays an important role in the linkage between surface and deep structures.  Now I gather that ‘intentionality’ in philosophical parlance is a loaded term (first clue: Daniel Dennett wrote a book on it), but I want to use the term more as a contrast to ‘incidental’.  We act sometimes incidentally, e.g., our intent is to get a glass of water and we have to walk incidentally to the kitchen.  I distinguish between the two by asking with what intent is our volitional, i.e., for initiating behavior, energy mobilized.  We can formulate an intention and plan for its implementation but enactment starts when volitional energy is summoned.  From this perspective I guess you could call incidental actions behavioral spandrels but they would clearly be instrumental.  So indeed all spandrels are, just that, instrumental; it is just that by definition evolutionary spandrels do not contribute (directly) to adaptive fitness—they are, shall we say, instrumental gaps.  (Blood’s redness here is more an incidental reflection of the instrumental iron). But by Darwin’s reckoning some do serve to facilitate reproductive success, so something must be working here.

At any rate, art certainly requires intentionality in its production—intentionality is a necessary feature of our shaping the art form to express our intended import.  Again the surface form belies the complexity of our import.  But does the apprehension of beauty, by us or any other species, require intentionality?  Consider again the images above of a sunset, storm and bird.  I hope you agree that they are beautiful but beyond the glory of nature, what might be their import?  And does fitness of even some vague sort contribute to their loveliness?  While they are not produced intentionally, we may attribute some intentionality to these images in a mythic function, like we say they reflect the glory of nature or god or we see some notion of life’s temporality rendered thereby or interpret what we see as an immanent portent. In this regard I think the sunset or a peacock’s tail is beautiful but not art.

The question Jabr reports on is how other animals see natural phenomena like another’s plumage, song, or dance. He writes, “Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”  And further, “Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful ‘in the struggle for life,’ Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being.”  Is this really a sense of beauty?  Again, I don’t know.  I have asked several birds around here but they have not answered; the clouds, though, they say ‘yes’.  That some perceptual features ‘fit’ another’s sense of  ‘appealing’ is fact.  But consider bird song where ornithologists studying male song measure its power by counting the number of copulatory postures elicited in the female.  The more postures seen the better the song is presumed to be.  A song, thus is boiled down to hormonal activity.  (Don’t want to go so long here but consider if dreaming is adaptive or spandrel, and remember that other animals do seem to dream: https://earthsky.org/earth/animal-dreams.)

I have long wondered when it is that a bird stops building its nest but have never seen any research on this.  If indeed they do have some sense of aesthetic, I would assume that the bird builds until it is satisfied with the construction.  If not, I would guess that the bird builds until the eggs are laid. Likewise consider the bowerbird. Does he work continually on his nest until he attracts and mates with a female, or does he come to a moment when he feels the nest is just right, sort of like us decorating the walls of our house, e.g., these pictures and tapestries do the job?

Finally I just read an article about a Duke researcher, Steve Nowicki, who tested the hypothesis that the more complex a bird song the better the bird brain has developed.  Knowledgeable females then would pick the male with a more complex song because of his greater intelligence.  So far, Nowicki’s research has not shown this to be the case.  Good songs from good brains do not win the day.  I remember from way back research showing that some birds raised in isolation sing the best songs, i.e., the females respond with more copulatory postures, but that other males then attack this prime singer, who can survive if he is the best fighter or if he modifies his performance and sings a lesser song.  There is a lesson for us all in this finding about the importance social niche plays in our development.

In the whole wide world many things fit together.  Some fit with the spark of life shining forth.  Each life shines with its own energy and some shine brightly beyond their own time and place.  Life, as we know, abides by the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics with its own particular slight of hand.  Life is an energetically exuberant process controlled as it advances ecologically in time. And, it seems to me that this exuberance manifests in many ways with each life form and generation rising.  Finding beauty in our surrounds shows our sensitivity to this and art is a supreme expression of that exuberance. That this metaphor seems a bit out of the loop empirically, I think, is only because so many fail to recognize some features of reality, e.g., finding beauty and artistic experience given and taken, as facts worthy of study, believing that the orthodox constraints to our science are more important than our imaginative seeking beyond what we know (always I come back here seeking a balance).  Read Jabr’s article about the beauty debate and see for yourself.  This is what I had to say about it.

 

Epilogue

Or could it be that even spandrels, those empty spaces in our structure, contribute to life’s vitality?  That elements that contribute empty spaces are important to life’s functioning?  What does the Tao Te Ching say about that again?  Say in chapter 11?

 

Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.

 

Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.

 

Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.

 

So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.

 

(Many thanks to Ursula K. LeGuin for this version) With that it is surely time to travel on.

fluid culture

A shorter post here before a longer one.

Several news outlets have recently posted stories updating our research into whale songs.  We have big questions here:  Why do they sing and why change their songs over time, do their songs travel underwater for thousands of miles with purpose, etc.  Whales are intelligent, conscious creatures, of that we can be sure, and still we are caught trying to understand them between anthropomorphism and anthropodenial.   Our rather weak conceptual basis for understanding their psychology depends upon their being mammals, big brains, once land animals, social, etc.  The difficulty comes from the usual mystery of another’s species’ mind and from their lives in the ocean; what must that be like?

I have several stories that I remember when I ponder their lives and minds. Their world is getting more polluted by human trash and noise.  Our navy performs underwater sonar experiments that are excruciating to them, yet we blithely complain that our diplomats in Cuba suffer brain injury due to sound waves.  We have hunted them cruelly for oil and meat, and indeed, Japan recently pulled out of a treaty banning whaling so that its ships could harvest more, they claim for research but what has been published? and besides they value and sell the meat as an expensive delicacy.  I have seen a video of a whaling ship killing a female blue whale, and then when its mate came charging at the ship, they killed him with their exploding harpoon gun. Remember that the story of Moby Dick was based in reality as a large sperm whale destroyed the whaler Essex in 1820.  That it was whitish is explained by the more recent finding that blue whales grow whiter with age, so Moby Dick was a vengeful elder.  Some whales feast on plankton, others on small animals, even seals for the orcas.  Some cooperate to blow a cylindrical ring of bubbles to corral the fish for their feeding. And many frolic and play.

My favorite story is the one a few years back when divers discovered a large humpback whale fatally encumbered by tangled fishing lines.  They teamed up to cut the whale free and when they had succeeded, this whale, remember now it is 20-30 tons of graceful and fluid power, went up to the divers and tapped its nose on their face mask in what the divers saw was clearly an expression of gratitude.  Google ‘whale gratitude’ and you will see several examples of similar actions.  Finally consider that whales have been known to support sick brethren in reaching the surface to breathe and that they are capable parents.

So this new research shows that whale songs develop over time: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/07/science/whales-songs-acoustics.html.  Consider this quote:  “Male humpback whales within a population tend to sing the same song type, but it’s continuously changing and evolving over time,” said Melinda Rekdahl, the study’s first author and a marine conservation scientist with the wildlife society. “It’s thought to be one of the best examples of cultural evolution in the animal kingdom.”

While their songs seem to be specific to each group, there are indications that songs might be shared between groups or that they influence each other.  Some whales travel long distances through several oceans, singing away through the deeps, so a cross pollination of sorts is easily conceivable if hard to document.

And now for something really interesting.  In one paper, Jenny Allen, who was a doctoral student with lead investigator Dr. Noad, found an unexpected pattern among humpbacks. Once their songs reach a certain level of complexity, humpbacks drop that tune entirely and pick up a new, simpler one. Her study, the first to quantify the complexity of the songs, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. So like the best jazz musicians, whales begin a song simply, develop it to a crescendo of complexity, and then drop back to the simpler, perhaps more lyrical pattern.  (Yes, I did see this very thing with the fabulous Joshua Redman quartet in concert last night and they are some of the best jazz musicians playing together with such artistry—catch them if you can).

Art, says Susanne Langer, is an expressive symbolic form rendering some portion of the vital experience of the rhythms of life.  In her later work she explored at length how organisms are born of rhythms, so of course, art, especially music because it presents a virtual image of time lived, portrays waves rising, building to crest and roll over to break and foam, subside and begin to swell anew.  I don’t know exactly why whales sing but I bet their songs express in some cetacean way their experience living in the ocean, and that, whether your bias is against anthropomorphism or anthropodenial, must be considered beautiful and a cultural sharing of their lives with their kin.

My next post, I think, will be a longer one about a debate among biologists about beauty and evolution.  Listen carefully while you travel on.

Push our timeline back some more

NYT has a good story about archeologists finding the earliest figural art found so far.  A few things stand out in this report.  First, the findings are based upon a new technique for analyzing mineral deposits in caves using radioactive isotopes.  Next, the scientists had an arduous journey through the jungles of Borneo to get to this cave.  Next, did I mention this cave is in Borneo?  While most Paleolithic art has been found in Europe and northern and southern Africa, these paintings have been found nearly halfway around the world—the humans had migrated a long way to live on this island.  Lastly, these paintings are also done with red ochre and include the hand silhouettes formed by blowing the pigment through a tube and figurative art of animals, similar to what has been found in Europe dated back 15-30,000 years ago, but these are much older, dating back to at least 40,000 years ago, possibly to 65,000.  (Let me not neglect figurines and a bone flute in Europe going back maybe 40,000 years ago).  All told, these new findings are really remarkable.  Read the article here (I hope): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/07/science/oldest-cave-art-borneo.html

Of course, cave art has a better chance of being preserved than art on stones and wood out in the landscape, and maybe that figured in to the decision to paint in the caves.  Some of this cave art, however, is way back in a cave.  I visited a cave in SW France where animal paintings were a mile in—talk about needing a long lasting torch and a way to find your way back out.  So why there?  Some speculate that paintings were a means of communicating about the locale, but this was not an especially effective way to spread the news.  Some speculate that the paintings were an early manifestation of cultural glue, e.g., providing a mythic identity and place of spiritual gathering.  This makes some sense to me.  Some say the animal paintings were a means to empower their hunting through early magic; maybe but this leads back to the cultural handling of life and death, of habitus, and of dealing with both the limits of human efficacy and of conserving any and all animals’ life force, e.g., spirit.  Given Langer’s supposition that art is a symbolic rendering of one’s experience, the hand silhouettes could be a form of Dissayanke’s making special (art expressed by the self of the self/identity—“oh look, Hugo has been here”) and the animals would be a form expressive of experience, perhaps from some identification with the animal’s power (consider Moby Dick).  I do not recall any little animals in all of these paintings; they are buffalo, horses, mammoths, etc., and not rodents or rabbits.

AltamiraBison

Altamira bison from Spain from about 30,000 years ago. No bunnies here.

So this art, like all art, is symbolic, its surface structure conveying some deep import about life and vitality.  This Borneo art was done about the same time modern humans spread into Europe to then displace Neandertals, indicating that the early humans from 350,000 years ago traveled far and wide, and then somehow, say around 80-90,000 years ago, developed a penchant for visual art at the same time in various widespread populations.  Other art forms, e.g., music, dance, tool decorations, body art, etc., are lost in the past.  I think early art was an intimate action, probably restricted at first to a close-knit group, e.g., family or tribe, and part of the reason for painting in caves was to protect this intimate aspect.  From this beginning, humans began to revel in artistic expression and find common ground by sharing art forms that carried, following the great Susanne Langer here, import luminous with the artistic individual’s vital experience.  Travel on back and forward to the timeless land of aesthetic forms.

 

Creed part 3

Continuing from last post, the last statement.

I seek the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind.  

         I came to this final statement recently as I worked on finishing my book (now begins the tedium of preparing for publication), but I know that I have sought something like this since mid-adolescence in some inchoate incipient manner.  This developed into a steady intellectual curiosity in college when I read Cassirer and Langer, so that in both bouts of graduate school and out in the professional world I have always listened, read and learned with this in mind.  I came to this idea once I had retired from my day jobs of serving children and families through teaching, speech and language therapy and clinical psychology; now farming infuses my philosophy, and though I have less time and energy during the growing seasons for reading and writing than I might like, winter is a joyful scholarly season, a special time for seeking the deep aesthetic.

Regular readers know I lean on Aquinas via James Joyce for the basic formula:  a beautiful form has integrity of wholeness, coherence of its elements, and luminosity of . . . .  Well, that is the critical question, I think: what is this luminosity?  Aquinas thought it supernatural and sourced from god.  Ho-hum.  Joyce, I think, struggled to go much beyond his Jesuit education and orthodoxy, but he still managed to focus on what the artist instills in his work, what the audience manages to find there, and the fine, sublime beauty of true and deep art that creates a stasis, i.e., a moment of epiphany and insight, as opposed to an emotionally evocative dynamism such as propaganda or pornography involve. The old humbug, Harold Bloom, in one of his last books, The Daemon Knows:  Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, refers to beauty, i.e., luminosity, as the sublime, an expression of the artist’s daemon, which from my perspective begs the question.

Art comes in two forms.  The first is what Ellen Dissayanke calls ‘making special’—the artist creates an artifact or decoration that is an expression by the self of the self.  This art form is akin to a bird’s plumage or song or dance in that it serves as an individual expression of some unique facet of identity.  The second is more akin to what Joyce and more rigorously Langer conceived of as art—the artist creates an art form that is an expression by the self of the self’s experience.  It expresses some import not about the artistic individual but about that individual’s vital experience.  This is Langer’s idea of a presentational symbol that renders the artistic import intuitively through the self’s vision and voice; it is a complex form composed from otherwise meaningless elements into a coherent and unified form that carries its import to its audience, i.e., it shines with its aesthetic luminosity.

Both of these art forms are a manifestation of the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind as are, indeed, many of the other dynamic aspects we find as we seek to understand what is happening here on Gaia.  Monod gives a careful and detailed exposition of how gene regulation and protein synthesis is carried out through chains of biochemical reactions dependent solely upon thefitbetween the shape of one stereospecific molecule complex and its substrate; if the molecule fits, an energetic reaction carries forward the vital processes, i.e., it shines.  If it does not fit, the molecules lie inert and the process is stymied.  This sort of operational feature operates in genetic replication, e.g., the double helix unzips and only reconstitutes through fitting specific amino acids into the proper place and sequence, as well in the molecular chemistry involved in the cellular machinery.  While we may not think of this as an aesthetic, Monod was quite sensitive to the beauty of these operations, and as cited above, understood that the marvelous complexity, integrity, and endurance of life in this regard fully justified his assertion that this is the true nature of spirit’s presence within us.

So I argue here that one prime property of life that emerges at different levels of biological organization is this special fitness, i.e., an aesthetic, of components interacting in an energetic chain that once engaged, pressures life forward; once this property stops its operation at this basic level, life stops. Further, the reason I now include my seeking to understand this in my creed is that this pressure forward of vitality engenders and guides our sense of future experience.  It is how we feel the immanent future and its possibilities. Some examples come to mind.

Consider first listening to music, the art genre Langer says renders its import in a virtual form of complex and many layered time.  When we listen we form expectations about what notes may come next.  This is especially true when we are familiar with the music but also when the music is novel.  Some notes feel right while others feel wrong, this according to some fitness standards that are culturally shaped to some degree.  Stravinsky’s Rites of Springviolated those expectations and energetic riots ensued, but a new aesthetic was engendered.  Some modern music seems atonal or in some way not musical to old fashioned tastes and it is hard to feel the flow forward.  When the composer is working on a piece, what has come before gives him or her a feel for what could and should come next. Again, some notes feel right, others don’t, and so the composition continues until the composer feels it should end, i.e., the form is complete.  And some endings also violate expectations.  A similar example is language and syntax.  Discursive forms are different than presentational ones but still what comes before determines what can come next and fit into the syntactic frame or structure.

I understand that the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind operates, then, on multiple levels in our experiential passage through time and that is what I seek in reflection and meditation.  Indeed, it engenders our sense of some future possibility as it comes to fruition in the present moment.  I think our sentience and consciousness follows along this operation, or better, along this path or way, like when our hippocampus processes what is old and what is new information or we form expectations for what will happen next. Our intellect is filled with such things going on mentally.  In this respect, then, life and mind are like water running downhill—downward in the stream of time where the past determines where we run next, i.e., what is ‘downhill’ in a negentropic energetic sense.  Our deep aesthetic, then, is seen in our vital and mental sense of life’s ‘gravity’; each life draws a next experience as its past experience warps what can come next in a fitting way.  Monod says each life abides by the law of entropy even while seeming to break it like Maxwell’s Demon.  Each life is a negentropic energy pool downhill from the rest of the universe. Like Maxwell’s Demon that mysteriously decreases entropy and increases information (negentropy), each of Dawkins’ replicators, as he conceptualized them in his book, The Selfish Gene, is also a daemon of this sort that, like art, operates to contravene the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics for its lifespan.  That is the source of the deep aesthetic I seek.

Much more could be said, but I will keep it this simple right now and travel on to the next post simply stating this creed.

Part 1: an old man finds his creed finally

Many years ago my then wife announced apropos of nothing at dinner with my parents that I was an atheist.  I was the most surprised person at the table because I had never applied that label to myself, always holding that to define beliefs by what you didn’t believe was a bit spurious.  I was reluctant to use agnostic even though that came closer to reality because I thought, again, it said nothing of what I did believe and expressing my ignorance seemed obviously redundant.  My parents were not surprised, having known I had ‘left’ the church a long time before but they did take this occasion to debate whether my baptism at age 9 would still get me into heaven.  Their answer seemed to be no, I was condemned to hell.  They did not think to ask what I did believe, which was just as well because my beliefs at that point were still entirely inchoate.

Over the intervening years I have pondered and developed some sort of belief that I might could hold.  My now wife Betty has helped with her rich humanity, my pursuit of poetry and art through Langer has helped with the conceptualization, and more recently I re-read Monod’s Chance and Necessity.  Better late than never, I now think I have developed a creed that renders my spiritual beliefs with some adequacy.  I call it my creed but actually it is only an incipient one because I think a creed by definition is shared by others.  Oh well, I never claimed to be orthodox about anything, so I will now go over my creed giving an exegesis line by line before writing it down as I recite it in my daily meditation.

I keep a simple faith.

I have always believed in KISS: keep it simple, stupid.  This derives in part from an agnostic tendency, i.e., the thought that in the last analysis we do not know anything about what lies in the mystic beyond, as I have come to term the domain we apprehend of (or make up the sense of) what used to be termed supernatural, because, as should be clear to regular readers, I hold everything in every domain to be natural.  This also comes from my reading Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, one of the earliest and still one of the highest expressions of mysticism.  Consider the 14thchapter:

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triply undifferentiated

It merges into oneness,

Not bright above,

Not dark below.

Never, oh, never,

Can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

To unbeing.

Call it the form of the unformed,

The image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

We can live in the present.

Mindful of the ancient beginnings,

We hold the thread of the Tao.

What lies beyond our ken is important (we should appreciate our ignorance more fully); it is ancient, enduring, and except for this book of Lao Tzu’s, nearly impossible to characterize through our intellect. When I keep a simple faith, I admit my ignorance of greater things while acknowledging my sense of something beyond and so maintain a boundary to my knowledge, to what I really know.  As Lao Tzu says in #71:

To know without knowing is best.

Not knowing without knowing it is sick.

To be sick of sickness

Is the only cure.

The wise aren’t sick.

They are sick of sickness,

So they are well.

I, too, at least, am sick of sickness.  And, as I see it, even thinking about the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, much less debating or fighting over it, is stupid (and sick), and as I said in my last post, I avoid the land of Stupid as best I can.

I believe in the presence of spirit.

I have long had some apprehension of the mystical beyond; beginning in my boyhood, expanding in my late teens and early 20s, and steadying in its course as I studied symbolization and aesthetics (thank you, Susanne Langer), I sensed the presence of spirit.  My wife Betty helped me to see this gift whole, a necessity for filling in the blanks. I think of spirit (not to get too complicated here, remember, KISS) in various guises: the Tao (the Way) of course, but also, following Einstein, who said he believed in god if it was Spinoza’s god.  Spinoza in the 16thcentury developed a remarkable understanding of the universe as a lawful, regular and integrated entity; in its processes lie the sweep of fate.  Good thing he kept this under wraps because the religious authorities at the time claimed to know how many angels danced on that pinhead and burnt people alive for disagreeing with them.  I also think of spirit in a somewhat animistic sense (still keeping it all natural) in what Amerindians referred to as mother earth, not our property to do with as we please but to carry out our responsibility as stewards; of course I now think of this as Gaia, the planet earth infused with life glowing blue and green in our region of the cosmos.

With my re-reading of Monod, however, I came to a more definitive understanding of spirit.  A famous Catholic of his day, Francois Mauriac, said of Monod’s definition of spirit that it “is far more incredible than what we Christians believe”.   This is what is so incredible:  Monod considered that we have a duality within us, a physical body and brain that operates mechanically according to physical laws and a mental consciousness seemingly(I echo Monod by saying ‘supposedly’) independent of such mechanics.  His and others’ objective analysis shows this to be an illusion,

“But it is so well within, so deeply rooted in our being, that nothing could be vainer than to hope to dissipate it in the immediate awareness of our subjectivity, or to learn to live emotionally or morally without it.  And besides, why should we have to?  What doubt can there be of the presence of spirit within us?  To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.”

So yes, I believe in the presence of spirit and must acknowledge that this spirit as conceived as Monod did is so incredible that ‘belief’ is a more appropriate word than ‘know’.

I wrote these first two precepts of my creed to use in a poem (I might post it someday soon) around 1995.  The next two I developed from reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity, but travel on for awhile before the next post.