Some Paintings from Joseph Wright of Derby

    Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797) lived through the era of the industrial revolution and the beginning of Romanticism.  I didn't live back then, but from what I have read, his pictures do a good job depicting that era and are good art in general.  Here is a self-portrait from 1780: 

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus

An experiment on a bird in the air pump: 

A philosopher lecturing on the orrery:

In these two pictures, Wright depicts the beginning of the time when science and scientific thinking was beginning to be part of ordinary people's lives.  And even the cruelty it could bring (as I understand it, the bird is suffocated as air is pumped out of its container).  The picture of the alchemist also shows the earlier era when science was properly called natural philosophy. 

An Iron Forge:

The Iron Forge is another painting showing technology.  In addition to these, Wright painted landscapes in a Romantic manner. 

Vesuvius from Popsilio:

Vesuvius from Portici

Matlock Tor by Moonlight

An idea inspired by a dream

     Recently, I had a dream that a person was granted a wish by a wizard and that as a consequence of the wish, he gained the power to absorb matter into his body, and become larger and larger.  When I woke up, while still in a semi-dream mode of thinking, I started down a train of thought that eventually led to thinking about how ancient peoples associated giants with mountains, such as believing that a giant was trapped under a mountain or that a sleeping giant had become a mountain.  

    And this also relates to how ancient people personified the world: they viewed the entire world as alive and not only alive, but anthropomorphic: for example, a mountain was thought of as something like a type of enormous human being.  

    Then later, we have the Medieval view, where rocks and mountains were viewed as part of the Great Chain of Being: they have their place in Creation but are not living.  However, they were not considered entirely dead, since they are a part of Creation as a whole and are connected by their place in the chain to living beings.  

    Later still, we have the view of scientific thought, that mountains are indeed completely lifeless matter, they are merely a formation made of up of rocks and minerals.  

    Then in the mid twentieth century, in his unfinished novel The Notion Club Papers, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about the character Ramer, connecting his thoughts with a meteor.  Ramer talks about how there is not much freedom as we would consider in many places in the universe, just long waiting for something to happen, such as a slip between rocks such as an earthaquake or shift.  

    In this story, Tolkien tries to imagine the consciousness of a rock, but rather than anthropomorphizing it, he considers it to have a different and more restricted mode of consciousness than a human being.  

    Following Bruce Charlton, I consider Tolkien in the lineage of Romanticism because he, while living in the modern world, tried to move past the despiritualized and mechanistic thinking characteristic of our era. 

    From this perspective, we can then see a development in thinking about non-human parts of the world, that follows the development of consciousness, traced out by thinkers such as Rudolf Steiner and Owen Barfield.  First a spiritualized mode of consciousness, viewing the world as alive (and anthropomorphized), then the Medieval form of consciousness, then scientific thinking viewing the world as dead, and finally Romantic consciousness, which seeks to respiritualize our thinking, but in a more free manner than the older form of consciousness.  

    I wonder if in the earlier anthropomorphic way of thinking about the world, human consciousness was rooted in the human.  In the course of becoming more independent, people gained a greater ability to imagine different modes of consciousness from the human: to envision that animals, plants, or the sun are alive, but have consciousness of a very different quality than human beings.  In other words, the releasing of restrictions from consciousness gave it a greater flexibility, though this flexibility has come with other consequences: greater freedom to think less human thoughts can also be dangerous (as we see all around us).

Scattered thoughts on Homer, Virgil, and Dante

    Partially inspired by William James Tychonievich's post "Dante in the wood", I have been listening to works by these three authors over the past few months: Homer's Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and Dante's Divine Comedy.  

    In a sense, these authors are successors to each other; though separated by centuries.  And I think this was conscious on their part.  For instance, the Aeneid can be thought of as the Illiad and the Odyssey all in one, except the part describing a voyage is first and part describing a war is second, reversing Homer.  And of course, Dante has Virgil guide him through Hell and Purgatory.  

    All three address the afterlife in some way.  When Odysseus goes to the underworld, he sees that except for the shades in torment, such as Tantalus, most of the people lead a shadowy, ghostly existence without being aware of much.  Only Tiresias among all the shades retains his wits.  However, at the end of the poem when the suitors descend to the underworld, they are greeted by the other shades and speak to them.  In any case, it was envisioned that existence would be much diminished.  

    I found it particularly striking that even the women who had children by the gods are down there in the underworld while the gods are up on Olympus.  We only here of three people who escape: Hercules who became a god himself and Menelaus and (presumably) Helen who will go to the Elysian fields.

    Virgil's depiction of the gods is more self-consciously poetical than Homer's, to the extent that I do not think he believed in them in a mythological way as Homer did.  I think the section of the Aeneid, when Aeneas goes to the underworld represents something close to Virgil's true religious beliefs.  He extends Homer's vision by separating the underworld into a section for the egregious wrongdoers, the city of Dis, and one for the righteous dead, the Elysian fields.  Furthermore, some souls undergo purgation for the wrongdoing they have done in life and then are reborn on Earth.

    For Dante, nearly the entire poem concerns the afterlife.  One thing I noticed about Dante is that while his poem is entirely in agreement with certain beliefs, such as that pagans cannot go to Heaven, he includes certain things in his poem that are somewhat of a different character.  For instance, even though Virgil is condemned to Limbo for eternity, he is allowed to accompany Dante all the way through Purgatory, even briefly to the Earthly Paradise at the top.  Also, the pagan Cato of Utica is the doorkeeper of Purgatory and so will be saved at some point.  

    This relates to something that Bruce Charlton has written about C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in that their publicly professed beliefs were circumsribed within certain limits, but in their stories, they explore ideas that go somewhat beyond those.  

    In any case, thinking through these three poems and how each expands on the others, adding more to the understanding of what happens after death, even Dante, with is extraordinary accomplishment is missing something.  In particular, he is missing the importance of freedom.  

    Here is what I mean by that.  Mortal life is brief in the grand scheme of things.  And during the course of this life, we have the opportunity to learn and the freedom to choose.  And it goes beyond those two words, those are two particular qualities, but there is a paricular character to life on Earth that is believed to be absent afterwards, although it is not easy to capture fully in words.

    This is expressed in various ways, such as the idea that the angels were given a brief stretch of time after their creation, when they could choose for or against God but after choosing, they were locked into their choice after that.  And there is a similar idea for human beings, that humans beings can choose Heaven or Hell but after that, there's no more room for choices.  And the way this seems to be understood is not that choice is taken away by some external means, but that there simply is no more need for it.  

    But need we think this?  It is true that in our experience of Earthly life, freedom and sin go hand in hand.  But is it possible both to make a permanent committment to God at death and in doing so moving to a state where sin is impossible, and moving forward towards more freedom?  

    One could interpret the story of the Garden of Eden as saying that Adam and Eve had a short period of time to exercise freedom and then once that decision was made there was no more room.  But the story doesn't actually say that explicitly.  It is certainly a valid interpretaion, but it is not the only one.  Another possibility is that in making a decision, Adam and Eve could have lived a type of life which is very difficult to imagine but not thereby impossible: a life both without sin and with freedom.   

     Someone who could write that kind of story, would indeed be Dante's successor.  

Articulation, belief, and intuition

     Recently this video was brought to my attention.  It found it helpful to hear the narrator think through the issues he discusses because it shows another person's thinking process as he approaches the issues of the present time.  One insight in particular that I thought was good is that he mentioned that you do not have to know in detail how all the algorithms of Twitter work to know that it is a net negative for many people that use it.  

    And of course this goes far beyond Twitter.  I haven't been able to locate this quote, but in either one of his books or on his blog, Edward Feser mentioned Richard Dawkins's famous statement in his book The God Delusion that Dawkins hoped his book would convert any religious person who read it to atheism.  Feser made the point that in general, that isn't the way people change their beliefs.  It is rare to have a single, definitive experience or argument that changes one's beliefs (Saint Paul would be one of the classics examples).  Rather, over a period of time, lots of little things add up and after a while, one realizes one has changed their beliefs.  C.S. Lewis writes about this in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.  He mentions the process of becoming a Christian and writes the following about the moment of conversion, while traveling to the Whipsnade zoo with his brother: 

    "I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken.  I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning.  When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.  Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.  Nor in great emotion.  Emotional is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events.  It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake."

    And what this means is that, frequently, when asked about why one believes or disbelieves something, one can give one reason or a few reasons, but none of them will be convincing to the questioner.  Partly because no reason was convincing by itself and partly also because one cannot present the experience of a process of months or years in minutes.  Another reason is that different people find different reasons convincing.  

    The important thing is that it is possible to know that one has good reasons for a belief but to not be able to articulate them or convince with them for a variety of reasons.  

    And this has particular relevance to the present time.  The System has all kinds of easily articulable reasons for everything.  They have statistics, canned responses, supposed experts, etc.  And so, it is easy for someone to give a reason for why they believe the System point of view.  In terms of validity, the reason may be completely worthless, and it may even just be for someone to convince themself, but the psychological effect of having ready answers for everything can be very powerful.  

    Also, because there is so much that it is difficult to know for sure about various issues (because we don't have personal experience of them), it isn't always easy to give a reason why we view something as good or bad.  

    And this particularly relates to the peck.  I believe that in some people minds, the connection of the peck to cloned fetal cells functioned in this way.  It is true that it shows the extraordinary level of corruption within medical research, but because this is a specific, articulable reason for opposition to the peck, many people both for and against wrote as if it was the only reason.  That if this reason could be refuted, then there would be no more grounds for opposition to the peck.  But, not only is this not the only reason for opposition to the peck, opposition goes beyond merely a list of reasons.  

    It really comes down to intuition and discernment.  One can know that the peck is wrong and can have reasons to believe it, but the opposition really comes from the understanding that comes from and goes beyond those specific enumeration of reasons.  

The real AI agenda

    On a post  by Wm Briggs, about artificial intelligence, a commenter with the monniker "ItsAllBullshit" writes:           "...