Tuesday, March 13, 2012

William Irwin Thompson II: Passages about Earth

Here is my second batch of William Thompson quotes, this time from the book Passages about Earth (bound together in one volume with At the Edge of History, a book I looked at in this post ). The reason why I quote Thompson at length is not only because  I find him a very quotable author but I am also currently working toward a post on C. S. Lewis scholar Michael Ward’s book Planet Narnia. There are definitely resonances between Thompson, Ward and Lewis. The following doesn't claim to be a rounded sample of Thompson’s thought, as he engages on long theoretical passages which are difficult to do justice to by sampling alone; one really needs to read his book.

P6: Again: Logic vs. Feeling, Masculine vs. Feminine, Logos vs. Mythos: As it had in the agricultural revolution, so in the Industrial Revolution did technology separate itself from the old religious world view. The world was split in two: the hard, masculine, and objective world of machines; and the soft, feminine, and subjective world of emotions

P29: Religion, science and heresy: And just as once there was no appeal from the power of the church without risking damnation, so now there is no appeal from the power of science without risking a charge of irrationality or insanity.

P46: Mythos reaction against industrialisation: After the first wave of the Industrial Revolution from 1770 to 1851, England itself seemed to be in mood for consolidation; and in “The medieval Court” designed by Pugin for the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition of 1851, it took a nostalgic look at the European civilization it helped destroy. With Pugin, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, and Cardinal Newman, medievalism became one of the first countercultures of industrialism.

P52: Truth is found in the dialectic: Though ideologues may try to lock all human values into one party, revolutionary or established, human culture is a complex field in which a value is defined and achieved in conflict with its opposite. Truth is not found in either conservative or revolutionary; truth is the magnetic field that surrounds those two poles.

P67: Thompson is sarcastically realistic about the chances of “renewal colonies” built around scholarly elites: In this perfect renewal colony there will be no conflict, no politics, no problems that cannot be solved by the problem solvers; all will agree on the good, all will see the good in the same way, and all will choose to act for the good with the same methods. Like B. F. Skinner, Wagar feels that if only greedy businessmen, ambitious politicians and redneck constituents can be gotten out of the way, enlightened men of science will rule wisely and well. ….one would think that academics who have lived in universities and observed the wisdom, goodness, and high ideals of their colleagues in the storied halls of learning would know better. ….Wagar’s colony is not so much a place as a pastoral, an imaginary realm free of conflict that one dreams about while he is suffering from all the agonies of the permanent contradictions of human nature.

P67: Thompson really has his head screwed on well. He realizes that all human solutions and communities are conceived in sin: No political movement can save us from the human condition that values are achieved in conflict with their opposites. The politics of the renewal colony will be no different from the politics of the university or the church. (He goes on to criticize the so called “renewal colony”. Much of what he says can also be used as the basis of a critique of crassly optimistic Christian restorationism and revivalism.)

P73: Thompson has no illusions about human nature and the failure of doctrinal fundamentalism of all types: How will we deal with conflict between different renewal colonies, each absolutely convinced that it holds the true answer to the predicament of mankind, if we no longer have the traditions of constitutional law to protect science and religion from one another? Perhaps we should remember that America started out as a renewal colony.

P96 and 97: The need for Pythagorean Science (Here, Thompson writes about his meeting with Heisenberg): Heisenberg answered that there was no question that the East had a knowledge we needed, that this knowledge was stronger than the West’s feeble attempt to reduce consciousness to electronics and information theory, but he still felt that the new directions would appear in the West. He was a western man; as musician and a scientist, he was more a follower of Pythagoras than of Patanjali……Certainly the science of Skinner bears the same relation to the scientific tradition as the inquisition does to Christianity….If subatomic particles are more mathematical forms than discrete pieces of material, and if the modes of perceiving these forms through laboratory instruments and mathematics alter the material itself, then, as Heisenberg would say, we no longer have a science of nature, but a science of the mind’s knowledge about nature.

P98 and 99: The irreducibility of consciousness and the demise of the “objective vs. subjective” distinction: If mathematical form becomes more basic than matter itself, then it follows that science, the cultural process in which the mind develops modes for the knowing of forms, is an inseparable part of nature. The subjective-objective distinction collapses. It does little good, then, to talk confidently of “facts” when you do not understand the structure of consciousness through which one can entertain the content of facts. The difficulty always arises when one confidently thinks in terms of a subjective “inside” and an objective “outside” world. We are not standing outside nature and observing it through a window. We ourselves are a part of the nature we seek to describe, and through what Whitehead calls “the withness of the body” we can discover the correspondence between neurons and neutrinos……it is not the case that consciousness is created out of behavior; behavior is a construct built up out of consciousness.

P111: A very general template for mythology: All mythologies are mythologies of love and death, Eros and Thanatos

P126: Scientific “priesthoods” are likely to be as authoritarian as religious priesthoods: Such a priesthood of science would use its disciplinary powers to preserve tradition against innovation, and another Galileo would be brought to his knees, another Bruno brought to the stake. (Thompson has human nature taped)

P130 and131: The mytho-poetic mentality is more in tune with the social trends: If you went around in England in the 1790’s asking how it felt to be living in an age of industrial revolution, most people would not know what you were talking about….Events that are too large to be perceived in immediate history register in the unconscious in the collective form of myth, and since artists and visionaries possess strongly mythopoeic imaginations, they can express in the microcosm of their works what is going on in the macrocosm of mankind.

P132: Fascinating snippet on the Neoclassical vs. Romantic: No one blew a whistle in Europe and said “Stop thinking neoclassically; start thinking romantically in terms of the primitives and nature”. And yet the whole age did shift dramatically. Because we do not understand this process we either ignore it of use terms like “spirit of the age”. Hegel would call it Zeitgeist. …(Thompson develops the theme of the collective unconscious and the role of mythology around these kinds of observations.)

P139:Logos vs. Mythos tension: Computer scientists and linguistic philosophers have an instinctive distaste for the ambiguity that makes their lives difficult. They continually try to translate life into a notation that is clear, precise, and capable of a single meaning for all observers. It is obvious that God is intelligent enough to be bored by such an automatic and repetitive universe, for He has designed one with a much more fascinating set of relationships between the unique and the universal. More fascinating and more poetic, for if one thinks in terms of, say, romantic poetry, one can see that there is not One Message that is romanticism; rather there are Wordsworth and Coleridge, Shelley and Keats.

P149: The consolations of mythos: The internal disciplines of the great mystical traditions seem to offer the only means by which man can feel at home in a universe so vast that, without the self-mastery and centering functions of meditation , he would go insane instantly.

P152: The over production of knowledge overloads human rationality: The professors produce one million scientific papers a year, so many that no one can process information rationally any more.

P156: Generalised fundamentalism: As the technologist becomes increasingly alienated from the realities of contemporary culture, he will refuse to accept the disconfirmation of his vision of man’s control of nature and will hysterically try to reassert his power. Social scientists who have studied occultists have shown that “when prophecy fails”, the prophets refuse to accept the evidence, but instead try even harder to prove the validity of their views by seeking the affirmation of converts. (This is consistent with my own observations in religious circles)

P165: Mythos vs. Logos tension in Christianity: If you wish to go back to the point at which Christianity took the wrong turn, so that you can find the other road at the fork, you must go back to Lindisfarne to see the clash between the esoteric Christianity of Jesus and John and the ecclesiastical Christianity about Jesus but of Peter and Paul.

P191: New Age authoritarians. Once again Thompson shows that he has no illusions about human nature: We do not need a new civic religion of the world state run by Initiates of Kundalini Yoga; we need to protect spirituality from religion in a secular culture of law in which devotees are protected from the zealous excesses of one another. It is utterly naïve to think that in the near future men will have outgrown the playpen of the American Constitution and will lovingly trust one another. The gurus are tolerant and merely condescending now because they have no political power; but even without power they show full evidence of human frailty and vanity and tend to think that their own yoga is bigger and better than the other guru’s. And what is often only a case of mild condescension in the guru becomes in the disciples a fever of zealotry. (This comment applies to Christian "gurus" and their followers as much as it does to New Age gurus and their followers).

…..Coming soon: Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward.

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