Thursday, May 12, 2011

Counting the Omer: Tiferet: Beauty, Integration

As usual when I try to write about this abstract metaphysical stuff I find my mind flying to the opposite pole of where it is supposed to be headed. So if this week was supposed to be about integration, I instead thought about all my unintegrated tendencies, one of which is exploring this religious nonsense. Is my mind a chaos of divergence? Well, yes, but I like to think that at some level it does all fit together into something coherent, which I would hesitate to label beautiful but perhaps there's a conceptual elegance to be found there. If I've gained anything from too many decades of programming computers, it's a sense for that sort of thing, for what is required to capture a lot with a little. And that seems to be closely linked to integration, because given the limited capacities of the human mind, increasing the elegance and power of its conceptual apparatus is the only way to extend its reach. You can't integrate things without a powerful representational framework.

Of course, that's not really the type of integration I'm supposed to be meditating on. It's more about having an integrated character, a self that's a whole rather than a loosely-bound collection of tendencies. Again, my natural tendency is to the opposite, I am fascinated by thinkers like Minsky and Ainslie (and Buddhists perhaps) who highlight the fragmentary nature of the mind, the lack of a real self.

That's all very well, but the fact remains that no matter how fragmented the infrastructure of the mind might be, there's a need to have at least a fictional coherent unified self, for social purposes, for moral purposes, for simply managing a life. The self and God are almost exactly the same kind of fiction, and they may be equally necessary. The God of the Bible himself seems to be a radically un-integrated character, at one moment loving, the next angry, both omnipotent and jealous, clearly a product of multiple authors. Yet at some level those authors are writing about the same (possibly fictional) thing. God hangs together no better than we do, but like our selves does nevertheless have some sort of coherence.

The idea of integration suggests holism, an idea that has hovered around the background of my thinking, a somewhat flaky and mysterious alternative to mechanistic reductionism. Gregory Bateson may have had the most coherent version of this idea, but even in his relatively lucid writing it appears as something too profound to be thought about in any clear or rational way. Holism has faint overtones of religion, and like religion it just won't go away.

So, holism is the (unsupported) faith that the universe is in fact integrated, and that some of the entities within it reflect that integration by being wholes themselves: organisms, ecosystems, whatever. This is one of those things that seems to be a glowing and resonant truth to some people, and nonsensical to others. To these cheerful mechanists, holism and soulism are just illusionary artifacts that ought to be dispensed with by clear-thinking folk.

As usual, I can't quite put myself squarely in one camp or the other but have to oscillate between them. I am thus unintegrated, but only because I seek an even greater integration, one that leaves nothing out. The obvious hopelessness nature of this quest is what drives me to religion, which seems to be the only human construct even remotely capable of containing such longings. Science is great, but it is not up to that kind of task, and is usually wise enough not to try.


Adam said...

Isn't it possible -even likely- that one could be a mechanistic holist? Are most holisms, when pushed, actually variants of mechanism? Newton mathematically unified the movements of celestial bodies and falling apples -a strong holism. I have always found it odd that "holism" as been wed to "soulism" (as you call it) when it seems that historically, ecosystems ecology, or whatever example you choose, is mostly mechanistic?

jswan said...

You wrote:

'there's a need to have at least a fictional coherent unified self, for social purposes, for moral purposes, for simply managing a life'

I agree that human psychology makes the construction of a self-fiction inescapable at least some of the time, but that doesn't mean it's not worth putting in the practice time to reduce the strength of that fiction.

With practice, I think one can really decrease the hold that the self-fiction has on behavior.

mtraven said...

I agree, more or less...I think the task is to get into the proper relationship with one's fictions, to take them just seriously enough.

TGGP said...

What's so distinctively cheerful about these mechanists? I'm not going to assert the opposite of cheerlessness, but a priori I'm cheer-agnostic.

mtraven said...

Well, there are some who believe that if mechanism is true then that' must be a horrible state of affairs (and usually use this to argue against mechanism). After all, it means we have no free will or souls and that's important to many people.

By contrast, there are those who accept mechanism or are positively enthusiastic about it (most of the AI community, eg) and thus are cheerful by contrast at least.

Veg said...

Two thoughts:

1) Everything in life — including life itself — is dialectical.

2) Everything is oneness, yet every thing is its own; we are all inextricably connected, yet each separate.