Sunday, February 19, 2017


Woman Peeling Apples, Pieter de Hooch, 1663. We never cease to be charmed by those quiet interiors. By the way, the mother is giving the peel to the little girl to eat — good-tasting, and good for health. 


When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

~ A.R. (Archibald Randolph) Ammons

Not really my favorite — I like those poems where Ammons talks to the mountain or the wind. This one is somewhat too abstract and didactic, not personal or intimate enough to engage me — but it’s one of those poems that ends up in anthologies. I do like the repetition of the unpromising phrase “when you consider,” and I very much like this passage:

. . . when you consider

that birds’ bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening

~ yes, these are the lines that leave no doubt: this man has music within him, and a very good mind (it takes brains to be a good poet; brains and music).


from the Paris Review


You said you wanted to eliminate Western culture from your poetry. Why?


Well, I sort of disagree with it.


With the Cartesian mind, or with what? The philosophical tradition of the West? The Roman sense of justice?


If I get back to the pre-Socratics, I feel that I’m in the kind of world that I would enjoy being in, but nothing since then. Especially in the last two thousand years, dominated by Christianity and the Catholic church and other religious organizations. I feel more nearly myself aligned with Oriental culture.


I’ve always been curious about why you’ve traveled so little. I think you spent a year in Italy.


Three months. We had the traveling fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which was for a year, but we came back after three months. I lost twenty pounds and I couldn’t wait to get home.


You didn’t care for the experience of being an expatriate?


I hated it. I’m not interested in all that cultural crap. It was just a waste of time for me.


Maybe this is part of what you were talking about before when you spoke of your rejection of Western culture, by which I take it you mean more specifically a rejection of Europe or of European cultural domination.




But it occurred to me that one reason you have traveled very little is . . .


There’s no place to go.


There’s no place to go?


Yeah, that’s a good reason not to travel. Well, I’m interested in the Orient, but I’m really not interested in going there. I’m not interested in Europe. I have no interest whatsoever in going there. Every now and then I go to Owego and sometimes I go to Syracuse, sometimes to Geneva, Binghamton—all over the place.


Geneva, New York, rather than Geneva, Switzerland.


Geneva, New York, right.


It occurred to me that another reason might be that you’d already done a considerable journey in going from your origins on the coastal plain of North Carolina to the hills and lakes of central New York state. A critic could spin a parable about the northward progression of your life—from a state that was part of the Confederacy to a university town in . . .


In the Emersonian tradition. In fact there is an essay about how I came to the north and took over the Emersonian tradition.


I thought you had decided to become influenced by Emerson only after Bloom told you that you’d been.


That’s basically correct, except that I did have a course on Emerson and Thoreau at Wake Forest. The professor was basically a preacher, however, who treated the hour as an occasion for sermonizing. But yes—it’s a marriage of the South to the North.


What is?


The movement of my life.


Are you conscious of being a southerner here?

I don’t hear my own voice, but of course everyone else does and I’m sure they’re all conscious of the fact that I’m southern, but I am mostly not conscious of it. In the first years, I was tremendously nostalgic, constantly longing for the South—for one’s life, for one’s origin, for one’s kindred. Now I feel more at home here than I would in the South. But I don’t feel at home—I’ll never feel at home—anywhere.


poet gossip: Emerging from a local eatery, A.R. Ammons allegedly said to Denise Levertov, “What are those yellow flowers?” She: “Archie, you're supposed to be a nature poet; those

are daffodils!


~ “Why the world didn’t turn out quite the world Orwell imagined is the subject of Ira Katznelson’s fascinating and slightly dark “Fear Itself.” The semi-darkness has to do with what Katznelson thinks happened to the New Deal revolution after the death of Roosevelt, his account of how a belief in the common good gave way to a central government dominated by interest-group politics and obsessed with national security.
Roosevelt is one of the most enigmatic figures in American politics. When he first took the oath of office, on March 4, 1933, he was considered by people to be a lightweight. Roosevelt was neither self-reflective nor a deep thinker. “His knowledge of political and constitutional history and theory was distinctly limited,” his one-time aide and speechwriter Raymond Mooley wrote. “During all the time I was associated with him I never knew him to read a serious book.”

There was steel within, of course, but Roosevelt’s usual manner was casual and blithe. He seems to have meant exactly what he said when he was asked once what his philosophy was: “Philosophy? Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat — that’s all.”

Voters trusted Roosevelt to lead the country through eight years of economic desolation, followed by a two-front war, because of his personality. He warned in his first Inaugural Address: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” and he seemed fearless himself. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s judgment is often quoted: “A second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” Roosevelt was buoyant, good-humored, and a great optimist. In the crisis, optimism was what people needed.

But it was a different talent that enabled Roosevelt to accomplish what he did as Chief Executive — to remain in office for more than twelve years and to preside over the repurposing of government, the salvation of capitalism, and the destruction of fascism. He loved politics. “His mental processes,” as Moley put it, were essential political.”

This understates the case a little. Roosevelt wasn’t merely a political pragmatist, someone who is less interested in the ideological provenance of a policy than in its effectiveness — although he was. He was creative. He saw that government was being underutilized, and he tried out ideas that no President had thought to try out before and found a way to put them into practice. He was an experimentalist.

In a period of depression and totalitarianism, the New Deal proved that liberal democracy still worked. Didn’t the Crash and the Great Depression, and the frighteningly successful job that Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler were doing the advance the industrial and military strength of their countries, prove that capitalism and democracy were inefficient, uncoordinated, and obsolete, and that something different — bureaucratic collectivism, the managerial state, or simply enlightened dictatorship — was not only inevitable but possibly morally necessary?

The promise of Roosevelt was the promise that, despite what looked like the tide of history, democracy would survive. This was not a promise only to Americans. It was read as a promise to the world. 

Making liberal democracy work in the years of the Depression and the war meant compromising with elected officials who were illiberal and undemocratic. Roosevelt understood politics, and stayed away from the issue of segregation.” ~ 

[the rest of the review focuses on the problems of dealing with the South and the post-war breakdown of the Democratic Party]

from “How the Deal Went Down” by Louis Menand, The New Yorker, March 4, 2013


Oh glory days when pundits would complain that FDR was not a “deep thinker”! 

For a serious look at what the world would look like if FDR happened to lose to the 1930s America First nationalists, read the visionary and absolutely terrifying The Man in the High Castle by P.K. Dick and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth.


Soon after posting, I discovered a thought-provoking article on trust versus the perception of competence. FDR excelled in inspiring trust. In terms of competence, he was always improvising. There was no long-term plan, nor did he understand fiscal policy. If we believe the sources, he was indeed not a deep thinker. But he had incredible strength of character (a man crippled by polio!), and that famous warmth.

Re: FDR’s self-definition as a Christian. He was certainly no fundamentalist. Back in FDR’s days being a Christian meant trying to be a good person who follows the teachings of Christ especially about helping the poor. It was about compassion. Today we have a travesty.

But especially back then, saying you’re a Christian, implying you were a good person, helped inspire trust.

Here is a bit of the short article on trust and competence:

~ “In her new book, "Presence," Harvard professor Amy Cuddy says that people quickly answer two questions when they first meet you:

    Can I trust this person?
    Can I respect this person?

Psychologists refer to these dimensions as warmth and competence, respectively, and ideally you want to be perceived as having both.

Cuddy says that most people, especially in a professional context, believe that competence is the more important factor. After all, they want to prove that they are smart and talented enough to handle your business.

But in fact, warmth, or trustworthiness, is the most important factor in how people evaluate you.

While competence is highly valued, Cuddy says that it is evaluated only after trust is established.

~ “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you've established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.” ~

Satan is feeling neglected these days. Too much competition. 

~ “People are compelling when they are a little bit out of reach. Not too inaccessible, but somewhat. A woman who has to take herself away each day to work on something creative is very attractive. A person who has nothing to do but you is boring. Something ought to get between lovers — a little threatening, but not too much so.” ~ (from Facebook; not mine, but my view exactly)


~ “The Combat Myth is a supernatural battle between order and chaos (or good and evil) that we see in mythologies of civilizations throughout the Ancient Near East, culminating with Judaism. Yahweh isn’t a remarkable god, different from the made-up gods in surrounding cultures. Instead, his story is just one stage in a long line of mythology. If the Akkadian god Anzu or the Babylonian god Marduk are obvious myths, Yahweh is the same.

While the Mesopotamian myths are unfamiliar to most of us, we see a hint in Greek mythology. Zeus wasn’t always the chief god of the Greek pantheon but took that role from his father Cronos. And Cronos succeeded his own father, Uranus. Though there are important differences, this succession is common to the Combat Myth.

1. Akkadian myth: Ninurta defeats Anzu

The Akkadian Empire followed Sumer as the primary Mesopotamian civilization. This myth developed about a thousand years before the Yahweh story in the Old Testament.

In the Akkadian pantheon, Enlil was the king of the gods. Kingship was invested in the god who possessed the Tablet of Destinies, which showed all that has happened and all that will happen.

The griffin-like Anzu, assistant to Enlil, steals the Tablet and flies away. Chaos threatens the order of the gods. Kingship will go to the god who restores order, but none steps up to respond to the challenge. Finally, Ninurta, an unimportant god to that point, volunteers.

Besides being able to fly, Anzu has two useful powers. One is that he can make all his feathers fly out and then come back, which distracts his opponents. The other is that he can disassemble things (such as arrows shot at him) into their component parts. And, of course, he has the Tablet, which is handy for seeing what an opponent is about to do.

The first battle is a stalemate. Anzu is able to disassemble Ninurta’s arrows. But Ninurta enters the second battle with a new stratagem. He shoots an arrow disguised as a feather at just the right moment so that it’s lost in Anzu’s cloud of feathers. Anzu pulls the feathers back in and is killed by the arrow. Order is restored, and Ninurta ascends to become the king of the gods.

Anzu, the Accadian chaos monster

The Combat Myth

From this, let’s distill out the Combat Myth. It begins with a chaotic threat to the council of the gods. None of the gods from the older generation is willing to face the challenge, but one young god steps up. He defeats the monster and becomes the new chief god. This structure is constant, though the details are customized in subsequent civilizations.

Two features are not shared by all examples. In some, we see the hero god dying and being reborn in the process. Also, our human world is sometimes created from the carcass of the slain chaos monster.

2. Babylonian myth: Marduk defeats Tiamat

This story comes from the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic. In the beginning were Tiamat, the female serpent or dragon who was salt water, and Absu, the male god who was the fresh water.

(I’ve written more about how the Genesis story parallels the Mesopotamian myth of a saltwater dome above the primordial earth and a fresh water ocean underneath.)

Tiamat and Absu create a generation of younger gods who become too noisy for Absu’s liking. He plans to kill them all, but they learn of his plan and kill him first. Tiamat is furious.

Marduk the storm god steps up to respond. He kills Tiamat, forms the universe from her body, and installs himself as king of the gods.

3. Ugaritic myth: Baal defeats Yam and then Mot

This myth comes from Ugarit, just north of Israel. It’s dated to roughly 1300 BCE. This is the environment from which Judaism emerged.

Our historical record is fragmentary, but El is the chief god, and Baal (“Lord”) volunteers to fight the chaos threat. (Yes, these are the same El and Baal mentioned in the Old Testament.) He uses a supernatural club to kill Yam (“Sea”), the serpent-like sea god. Some variations give Yam seven heads and use Lotan and Leviathan as synonyms.

Next, Baal fights Mot (“Death”), another threat to order. Baal dies in this battle but is brought back to life to finally overcome Mot.

4. Israelite myth: Yahweh defeats Leviathan

Early Judaism had the same council of the gods as in Ugaritic mythology. (I’ve written more on Israelite polytheism.) Yahweh is a son of El (also called Elyon) and was just one of many in the council of the gods.

    When Elyon divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, [Israel] his allotted inheritance. (Deuteronomy 32:8–9)

Yahweh was assigned Israel, and other gods in the council were given their own tribes to rule.

We see the Bible’s version of the Combat Myth in Psalms 89:5–12. First, Yahweh has taken his place as king of the council of the gods.

    The heavens praise your wonders, Yahweh, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies above can compare with Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the heavenly beings? In the council of the holy ones God is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.

Yahweh has slain the chaos monster Rahab (yet another name for the sea monster).

    You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them. You crushed Rahab like one of the slain; with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

Finally, Yahweh created the earth.

    The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth; you founded the world and all that is in it.

We read a similar retelling in Psalms 74, where Yahweh is credited with creation. But first, he defeated the monster(s):

    It was you who split open the sea [Yam] by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert. (Ps. 74:13–14)

We see this multi-headed dragon both looking back as Lotan in Ugaritic mythology and looking forward as the sea dragon in Revelation 13.

With Yahweh as just one more step in the evolution of the Combat Myth, little besides wishful thinking supports the idea that he alone is for real.” ~


If not for having learned about other mythologies, I don't know if I would have been intellectually ripe for leaving the church in my teens. Not that I knew anything as sophisticated as the evolution of the Combat Myth. For me the Greek mythology was THE mythology, though names like Gilgamesh and Osiris were just beginning to mean something too (not yet in detail). But just classical mythology was enough for finally grasping it's all mythology, all made up -- all the gods.

Yahweh, detail of tapestry designed by Pieter Coecke van der Aeist; Palazzo Pitti. To me, the red-gold robe has a Chinese feel.


How did modern freedom in the West come about? Samuel Moyn, in his review of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, gives us this summary: “There was a time before the individual: the ancient world, in which individuals were wholly subordinated to family structures. No matter that admirers from the Renaissance and Enlightenment appealed to the classical past in order to attack Christian oppression, Siedentop says: they ignored the fact that no ancient society embraced the value of individual freedom. “They failed to notice,” Siedentop comments mordantly, “that the ancient family began as a veritable church.” 

Neither Jesus nor Paul—the revolutionary whose influence Siedentop credits most—was committed to political change or institutional reform in this world, which both thought was ending soon. Their depreciation of worldly accomplishment sundered their commitment to the moral value of human beings—including those Jesus calls “the least of these”—from any truly political vision. If the founders of Christianity made individuals matter, and matter equally, it was not for the sake of a new set of beliefs about the social order, let alone a new liberal politics.

Siedentop notes
Paul’s “imagery of casting off the shackles of slavery, a potent image in a world where slavery remained such a basic institution.” But he fails to mention that Paul relied on that image only in describing what Christianity would achieve for the soul after death. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul counseled followers to dutifully accept the shackles of the body in this life. “The offer of dignity through belief in Christ did not openly challenge patriarchy or servitude,” Siedentop later acknowledges, but it didn’t challenge patriarchy or servitude implicitly either.

There is a major difficulty for anyone, including Siedentop, who tells a Christian story of liberalism’s origins. They must explain how, against its original purposes, the Gospel’s message was brought down to earth, applied right now to radically new aims and institutions that Jesus and Paul would not have accepted. The reversal is stark: from a refusal of the relevance of Christian moral beliefs’ to politics to a revolution in this-worldly assumptions about the subordination of individuals to hierarchy. You need an argument to show how this happened. Siedentop doesn’t really have one. He just knows the reversal occurred.

Siedentop plausibly suggests that hopes of imminent redemption had to be given up in exchange for indefinite expectation, which came about thanks to figures such as St. Augustine. But when he comes to the problem of institutionalization, Siedentop constantly substitutes conclusion for explanation. “A moral revolution was under way,” he writes. “The rhetoric of the Christian people was undermining a whole conception of society.” Sure, but how? “By the end of the tenth century Christian moral intuitions were giving rise to a new sensibility.” That this occurred is the problem demanding a solution, not the solution itself.

At best Siedentop’s narrative repeats the shortcomings of the introduction to Democracy in America, where Tocqueville makes vague allusions to the slow work of Christianity in equalizing men, neglecting the vast chasm that separated the moral equality of Christians from the political equality of modern doctrine. So Inventing the Individual mostly amounts to an argument that, after Jesus’s message, it just took a while for liberalism to complete its metamorphosis and come out of its Christian shell. At least Tocqueville could rely on the claim that God’s providence unfolds in mysterious ways. We cannot.

. . . The richest entry comes from Gauchet, the French thinker who also founded his career on the revival of nineteenth-century liberalism and, in The Disenchantment of the World (1985), specifically took up how and why Christianity birthed individualism.

For Gauchet, the secret lies in monotheism’s unique approach to God’s transcendence, which made the divine so otherworldly that man became more autonomous in consequence. Christianity in particular severed the monotheistic promise from terrestrial fulfillment in the Promised Land and inscribed it “in the soul’s inner recesses,” a step that, as Gauchet puts it, “[intensified] divine exteriority in relation to creation.”

The same revolution that alienated individuals in relation to the world inadvertently prepared their independence from the divine and deprived politics of any sacred meaning. Siedentop observes that, as a matter of the history of language, the “individual” emerged more or less simultaneously with the “state.” Gauchet insists this is no accident, since the early modern kings who founded the absolutist state completed the long-term transition whereby secular political authority no longer incarnates the divine—that only Jesus could do—but represents the will of individuals. The social contract was thus born as authority in politics ultimately needed to come from the ground up, rather than heaven down.” ~ Samuel Moyn


Ludwig Richter, in his comment on “Did Christianity create liberalism?” in the Boston Review, writes about the “spirit versus the letter” essence of Christianity:

~ “It seems to me that an obvious distinction between Christianity and even other monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam is that Christianity aims to substitute the "Holy Spirit" for the letter of the law. Judaism and Islam are religions where there was never intended to be a distinction between political and religious authority. They come with detailed codes of law and behavior meant to govern all aspects of life. Christianity, from the outset, called for a kind of internalization of the law, a substitution of inner virtue and pious belief for public obedience to laws and norms. Traditional Judaism and Islam are much more indifferent to what one believes  “in one's heart,” so long as one abides by the religious law.

It is that abdication from any attempt to comprehensive legislation of the outer realm that distinguishes Christianity and makes possible the later separation of Church and State and the existence of the State as an autonomous body. The groundwork for liberalism can, then, later be laid by thinkers such as Hobbes, who imagine the State as a bulwark against, inter alia, religious wars. People can believe what they want, but the State has supreme authority over their bodily lives. It is not such a long step from here to the idea that the State is indifferent to individual's private beliefs and can tolerate a diversity of belief systems so long as those individuals are good, law-abiding citizens.” ~


I think best illumination comes from Richter’s comment: Christianity did not attempt to create the kind of religious law that governed every detail of life (Calvin went a long way in that direction, but his experiment didn’t last.) Observance (“the law”) simply wasn’t the essence of Christianity. Following the spirit was more important (at least theoretically). Unfortunately, stirring up fear of an external enemy (never mind “Love thy enemy”) seems to always work against the essence of Christianity.

Of course modern Judaism (Conservative and Reform) is not obsessed with observance and is classified with liberal religions, up there with liberal Protestantism.

And it could be argued that the roots of Jesus' liberalism are of course Judaic. He represented one of the more liberal sects at the time, opposing the oppressive Sabbath rules, for instance ("Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath"). 

This was a very illuminating article precisely because it did not provide any clear answer — rather, it reminded the reader of the principle that nothing is all good or all bad. Usually we take it for granted that religion is a major obstacle to progress. The recent devolution of Islam toward its more repressive traditions seems to confirm this attitude. But one can find sparks of progressive attitudes even in Islam. The case of Christianity is far more good-mixed-with-bad because there is no denying the progressive, quasi-socialist Christian rhetoric that can’t be separated from the teachings of Christ.

True, neither Jesus nor Paul nor the early Christians were interested in changing society so as to eliminate poverty, for instance. They were apocalypticists: the world was supposed to end soon, so investing in it was pure foolishness. You weren’t even supposed to get married (it wasn’t forbidden, just not advisable), or file a law suit — because the end could come literally at any moment. Frankly, there was no time even for family obligations: “let the dead bury the dead.” 

And the least you could do is sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.

The Second Coming was to take place in Paul’s lifetime. As Paul writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

Note “we, who are left alive.” Paul didn’t think he’d die first (what a bummer, to die and lie in decomposing in the earth!)

And yet — you were supposed to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prisons, and “love thy neighbor” in general. The pacifist message was also undeniable. Never mind that those ideals would be constantly betrayed. The fact that they existed was very powerful. It was a constant command to be a caring person. And that, I think — the endlessly repeated message of compassion — carried in it the impulse toward building a more caring social system.

This was not explicit. Jesus did not say “Let us build socialism.” God alone would create the new earth and the new heaven. Nevertheless, the gospels left no doubt that your task in life was not to amass wealth, or win wars, or otherwise “be a success.” Your duty was to help others. You were to be a caring, loving person and not a selfish, greedy pig. Loving and caring —  how soft these words are, seemingly powerless. But — never underestimate the power of an ideal.

The irony is that today’s right-wing gun-carrying American Jesus bears no resemblance to any past Jesus (an ever-evolving mythical figure), and it’s the secular humanitarians who are allied with Pope Francis. But it’s precisely those rich ironies that make life so interesting.
I like this portrait of St Augustine with the flaming back of his head (in lieu of the halo, I suppose) and the flaming heart in his hand -- perhaps to symbolize Augustine's radical (and arguably dangerous) statement, "Love God and do as you will." The painter is Philippe de Champaigne, 1650.

Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great. ~ Golda Meir

Young Golda Meir -- who knew she was such a hot babe?


~ “I just knew I didn’t believe the nonsense anymore, so “non-believer” initially was what I was. It took years before I actually conceptualized and realized that my faith was now in reason, science, family, love, music, art, empathy, etc. I never did feel or think that I’d “lost” my faith. To me it was that I had escaped the brainwashing of a cult and found an entirely new life. I did realize how indoctrination had stunted my intellectual development and that I was playing catch up.” ~ Dean A. Aughinbaugh (Mason Lane), author of “Justifiable Homicide? Growing Up a Baptist Fundamentalist” (he was actually an ordained minister; when he announced his non-belief individually to members of his congregation, they refused to believe him)

fortunately medieval cathedrals can (and these days usually are) be visited between services


Embodiment refers to the idea that we humans have bodies, and that these bodies matter for how we behave and how we think. It may seem odd that such a blindingly obvious truism should get religion scholars all in a tizzy, but the fact is that most of Western culture has assumed that bodies are unimportant appendages to the mind since, well, Aristotle – who argued that the most exalted philosophy was completely disconnected from bodily or practical concerns, such as how to build a bridge or heal people. For Aristotle and most of the Western intellectual tradition since his time, bodily things have been associated with women, slaves, and the lowly. What really matters, what’s really important, are abstract, purely intellectual endeavors – unencumbered by the flesh.

This attitude – Yay intellect! Boo to bodies! – is alive and well in today’s supposedly enlightened culture, where it practically serves as the rallying motto for thousands of researchers and excitable pundits in the cognitive sciences, AI research, and the tech industries. In cognitive science and artificial intelligence research, for instance, symbolic or computational models of intelligence have typically dominated. These models assume that intelligence can be reduced to the pure algorithmic manipulation of abstract symbols, such as words and numbers.

In this representation-based paradigm, intelligence doesn’t need a body at all in order to exist, but could be stored in a completely abstract space – such as the inside of a computer program. As Hilary Putnam put it, we could all be brains in vats!

Here’s the thing, though: symbolic approaches to artificial intelligence don’t work. Symbol-based artificial intelligence programs simply can’t learn, recognize patterns, or coordinate motion very well, for instance. Because of these failures, it’s become increasingly apparent to keen-minded AI researchers that it’s time to think beyond reducing intelligence and consciousness to symbolic algorithms.

EMBODIED COGNITION is one alternative to “the-brain-is-a-computer” models of intelligence. For embodied cognition theorists like neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, our mental processes fundamentally depend on physical processes and context. These claims are supported by experimental research that shows, for example, that it’s harder to recognize negative words when the facial muscles responsible for smiles are engaged (and more difficult to recognize positive words when we’re frowning). 

Damasio argues that emotional bodily states are fundamental ingredients of decision-making, and therefore central to the structure of intelligence. (His insights draw on philosopher and psychologist William James, who famously argued that changing our bodily postures — standing up straight, for example — affects our cognition.)

Embodied cognition models insist that what goes on in our muscles, our guts, and on the surface of our skin actually matters for our thinking. And the evidence is increasingly behind them. A brain in a vat would lack physical sensations. This means, for example, that it wouldn’t be able to feel fear – because fear is the tensing of the stomach muscles, the dilating of pupils, the flushing of the skin. If you’re not feeling physically tense, you’re not feeling afraid. Emotion, then, isn’t just a symbol. It’s an experience. And because emotion is absolutely indispensable to human information processing, it’s not clear that we could even call a brain in a vat “intelligent” at all, no matter how many neurons it had. This is why AI researcher and roboticist Rodney Brooks argues that only robots with fully-functional bodies could ever be intelligent: because bodies are what it takes to be conscious.

A splendidly written recent article in the New York Times Magazine offers a perfect example of why embodied learning is necessary. The process by which taxi drivers in London learn the entirety of the London street grid and all its landmarks through actually traveling the streets is so intense that their hippocampi grow to be bigger than other people’s. The ordeal is called gaining “the Knowledge.” And as GPS systems and other automatized, algorithm-based tools for navigating a city as cumbersome as London proliferate, cab drivers who have attained the Knowledge are showing why first-person, embodied knowledge is so important: they can actually maintain and synthesize more information that is relevant to particular scenarios. You want to get from Piccadilly to an obscure pub in the East End without hitting any traffic lights, and avoiding rush-hour traffic? GPS can’t help you there. But London cabbies can. They use their gut knowledge of the entirety of the city to quantifiably outperform GPS systems in real-life situations.

Religious experience is something that comes from what bodies do [e.g. bowing and kneeling and other submissive body postures, making the sign of the cross]. And that goes for a tremendous amount of human life besides. If you want to understand religion, or culture, or London, you need to understand humans. And if you want to understand humans, you need to understand bodies. Our increasingly disembodied, tech-driven lives aren’t making that any easier.

Oana Farcas: Study of Francis Bacon in his studio, 2011

Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark places it leads. ~ Erica Jong

Dali: A Mad Tea Party, 1969

ending on beauty:

Laughter restores the universe to its original state of indifference and strangeness. If it has a meaning, it’s a divine one, not a human one. ~ Octavio Paz

 Natural Bridge Cave, Calaveras County, California

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