|"Autumn Rhythm" by Jackson Pollock (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, George A Hearn Fund, l957)|
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Monday, June 27, 2016
You see an ant run as you take aim with your hand. If it didn’t sense danger, why would it scamper away? And who's to parse the difference in response to similar threats of the human mind which traffics in eventualities? The NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay entitled “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” As Elizabeth Kolbert points out in a recent piece, Nagel's essay could easily have been titled "What Is It Like to Be an Aardvark?" ("He Tried to Be a Badger," The New York Review of Books, 6/23/16). But what is the contrast between what the ant or fly is going through and what we as humans experience think when we see a suspicious looking character approaching us on one of those Hopper Streets with their solitary street lamps? If you’ve ever chased one of those big water bugs or better yet a mouse you realize how canny creatures can be. Such is their elusiveness, if they weren’t rodents you'd want to recruit them as tight ends for a football squad. So what is the real distinction? Both humans and so called lower forms seem to react to the penumbra of danger in the same way and if we assume that animals lack what we call consciousness or thought—an absence which it’s ultimately impossible to verify—then we may assume that what’s missing in the animal mind (Gregor Samsa not withstanding) is a concept. The ant or fly doesn’t say “uh oh there’s a man trying to get rid of me.” Even the water bug and higher forms like the mouse or rat don’t do that. Humans have highly developed upper brains, one part of which, the language cortex is responsible for putting ideas into words, while animals depend on the lower brain, limbic faculties. So the big difference is language which mediates and translates emotion into thought and also is one of the factors that enables human consciousness to be uniquely self-reflexive. We look at higher brain functions as a gift (which they most certainly are), but might it not be said that animals, who lack such filters, have a better idea of what's going on?
Friday, June 24, 2016
|"Gaia" by Anselm Feuerbach (1875)|
What is God consciousness? From the human point of view, it’s the awareness of God, but it begs the question of the relation of a supreme being to those he, she or it looks down upon from wherever such spirits reside. Does God have a conscience? Is that the motivation behind the order we see in nature and the fact that at the day of reckoning the last end up being first? Or is God's will a kind of value free, Buddha mind, a force of unconditional love and generosity that's ultimately non-judgmental in spirit. Humans can’t be faulted for anthropomorphizing God, but it’s interesting to try to conceive of forces that have nothing to do with human wishes or will. God is often conceived of as either a bearded creature of an earth mother like the Gaia of Greek mythology. In the former case God is a saddened being a bit like the mythological figure ofAtlas who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders; in the latter, the female personification often takes the form of one of those old fashioned l930’s gum chewing switchboard operators. Requests from supplicants come in and God plugs one in with the other, attempting to answer prayers like ones from those seeking parking spaces near the restaurant they've pulled up to on rainy evenings. Is it possible to imagine a God who's not trafficking in human desire and who's not presiding over the agora and deciding who gets what? Is there a God who without being unkind is totally uninvolved in human affairs. Let’s take a planet like Kepler 62f, in the Goldilocks part of the universe, 1200 light years from earth ("Two Promising Places to Live, 1,200 Light-Years From Earth," NYT, 4/18/13). Such planets, with climates that would allow for water, seem like candidates for familiar life forms, but who ever said the dice throw that resulted in mankind was going to be replicated? In other words, if God tried to keep tabs on all his creations, he would have his or her hands full. And it’s not hard to imagine God quitting while she or he were ahead. Copernicus proposed the heretical notion that the earth was not at the center of the universe. From then on mankind has had to deal with the probability that its not likely God’s chosen people.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Have you ever watched victory slip from your hands and remained numb as the tables are turned? That’s what the Golden State Warriors may feel like after their loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers and that is apparently what the Republicans are naturally hoping for in Cleveland this summer (“RNC: Cavaliers Victory a Sign of Things to Come,” Politico, 6/20/16). You never know until you know and while Donald Trump may continue to make statements that even his own party leaders disapprove of like his comments about the judge in the Trump University case, Hillary Clinton cannot afford to sit on her laurels. Upsets are always in the offing. One of the most famous of course was that of a Democrat over a Republican in the Truman victory over Dewey in l948 (The Chicago Daily Tribune famously printed the erroneous headline"Dewey Defeats Truman"on November 3). But losing itself is physiological process and it’s almost like the body is responding to some kind of unconscious mechanism which puts it into shock. You may have a major lead and all of a sudden you experience a kind of paralysis that’s familiar to being anesthetized. You’re feet are still moving, but they start encountering first one then another defeat, as you become the observer of your own self. You start thinking about losing instead of winning, since you lack the extra bit of willpower that’s needed to clinch victory. Back in 2000 Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article on “The Art of Failure” (The New Yorker, 8/21/2000) and Jonah Lehrer, another New Yorker writer who turned out to have his own problems, which may or may not have had to do with failure, addressed the subject in “The New Neuroscience of Choking” (The New Yorker, 6/5/12). It’s a fascinating subject, provided you're not the one who's experiencing victory being wrested from your hands.
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Sometimes a movie, no matter how good or bad, strikes a chord that enables it to transcend traditional critical and esthetic judgments. Such is the case with Rawson Marshall Thurber's Central Intelligence. The subject of the movie is bullying and for all intents and purposes it falls into line with a whole bunch of recent silly comedies (The Boss, The Nice Guys) that gain traction by crossing the line with respect to political correctness or taste while at the same time dealing with shall we say "developmental issues." The idea is that a bullied high school student (Dwayne Johnson), who is the subject of a cruel prank, grows up to be the equivalent of Superman. He becomes a C.I.A. agent of extraordinary talents with a physique to match. Both sides of the movie’s protagonist (the before and after) are cartoons. The comedy is a little like Popeye’s biceps which are always ready to explode. But the subliminal effect of all the hyperbole is to detoxify trauma while giving it full imaginative play. Central Intelligence manages to be both antiseptic (to the extent that the bullying that’s presented is so exaggerated as to defy realistic concerns) and at the same curiously psychological. The subject of the bullying comments that he's pushed the incidents that occurred years before far down. They run him, but he’s at the same time rarely, if ever, cognizant of them—despite the fact that the central line of plot has him glomming on to the class valedictorian and star athlete (Kevin Hart), the one person who ever treated him with respect. Melissa McCarthy makes a cameo appearance as another damaged soul—she’s cross-eyed—who’s reunited with her the weirdo on whom she’d had a crush. In the end, everyone marches into the sunset or rather into the CIA, an agency which, despite the clandestine neuronal like connectivity with which it’s portrayed, is not to be confused with the central nervous system.