March 7, 2014

1. Philosophy Videos

In recent months, I’ve been neglecting my e-zine because I’ve been making philosophy videos at a small local TV station. Every town in Massachusetts (in the nation?) has its own TV station, which broadcasts town politics, town sports, yoga shows, music shows, etc. The stations are funded by 5% of every cable TV payment, so they have ample funds, but they probably don’t get many viewers. The station doesn’t charge me to make the videos, but neither does it pay me — no money changes hands.

My philosophy videos are broadcast on the local station, and are also uploaded to my Youtube channel. I welcome your feedback on the videos because it’s difficult for me to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

I find that talking to a camera is stressful and unenjoyable, but it impels me to clarify my thoughts, and it impels me to focus on my main themes, unlike the e-zine format, which seems to disperse my attention onto many different subjects. The people at the studio taught me to edit video, so I suppose I could make videos at home. Perhaps a home video could be a rehearsal for a studio video.

2. The Double-Slit Experiment

I happened to glance at Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and I noticed that the last chapter is an introduction to quantum physics. I couldn’t resist reading the first few sentences, and gradually I was drawn further and further into it. I’m now in the midst of reading the whole book.

Feynman’s essay isn’t easy to read, and it isn’t a good introduction to quantum physics. Feynman focuses on the double-slit experiment, which he regards as the essence of quantum physics. I had read about this experiment before, and found it confusing; after reading Feynman’s account, and Wikipedia’s account, I was still confused. But when I read John Gribbin’s account, in his book In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, I finally felt that I understood it.

In the double-slit experiment, particles are fired from a “particle gun” at a wall that has two slits or holes in it. Behind the wall is a second wall, a “backstop” that records where the particles land. If one slit is closed, we find that the particles land as we would expect them to, as bullets or other objects would land — most of them land directly behind the open slit, a few land slightly further away.

But if both slits are open, we find that the particles begin to act like waves, and they land against the backstop as waves would land. Where the crests of the waves combine, the particles land in a bunch, where the troughs of the waves combine, no particles land, and there’s a blank area on the backstop. This is called an interference pattern, it’s typical of wave behavior; one might call it a striped pattern, a zebra pattern. The image below shows how light passing through two slits becomes two colliding waves, and the waves create an interference pattern, a striped pattern:

What’s going on? Are the particles from the two slits somehow bumping or influencing each other? Let’s try to eliminate the possibility of “bumping” by firing just one particle at a time. If both slits are open, and we fire one particle at a time, the same interference pattern emerges, as if the particle knows that both slits are open. And if we observe the slits, to see which one the particle is passing through, the particle goes back to behaving like a bullet — no interference pattern — as if it knows that we’re watching. Gribbin: “The electrons not only know whether or not both holes are open, they know whether or not we are watching them, and they adjust their behavior accordingly.”1

Feynman thought that all the mysteries of quantum physics were apparent in the double-slit experiment:

There is only one mystery. If you can come to terms with the double-slit experiment then the battle is more than half over, since “any other situation in quantum mechanics, it turns out, can always be explained by saying, ‘You remember the case of the experiment with the two holes? It’s the same thing.’”2

Feynman begins his chapter on the double-slit experiment by saying,

We choose to examine a phenomenon which is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way, and which has in it the heart of quantum mechanics. In reality, it contains the only mystery. We cannot explain the mystery in the sense of “explaining” how it works. We will tell you how it works. In telling you how it works we will have told you about the basic peculiarities of all quantum mechanics.3

The best explanation of the double-slit experiment is that everything is connected, everything is alive, everything has a kind of consciousness, there are no “separate particles,” no dead matter, no dumb stuff. Gribbin uses the word “holistic”: “There is no word more apt to describe the quantum world. It is holistic; the parts are in some sense in touch with the whole.”4

This holistic worldview was the worldview of primitive man and of Eastern philosophy. It’s the Hermetic worldview, it’s what I call the Philosophy of Today.5 To scientists like Feynman and Einstein, it’s strange, mysterious, baffling. Niels Bohr said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” I would say, “Anyone who is shocked by quantum theory has a faulty worldview — their worldview is too Newtonian-mechanical, too rational-scientific. They need to adjust their worldview.”

What Bohr calls “shock” is a sign of a discrepancy between the dominant worldview and the facts of quantum physics. Doubtless Bohr would have experienced the same shock if he had observed occult phenomena instead of quantum phenomena. Quantum phenomena are no more shocking than occult phenomena — probably less so. Bohr’s “shock” indicates his ignorance of the occult, of telepathy, of the inter-connected, holistic nature of the world.

If we disregard the chapter on quantum physics (Chapter 6), Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces is quite easy to read, and quite interesting. It’s an introduction to physics that looks at the current state of knowledge, and disregards history. It’s drawn from his Caltech lectures — more specifically, from a class on basic physics. Click here for a good documentary on Feynman, part of the Nova series.

3. Greatrakes and Stubbe

I recently came across a book called The Dark Side of the Enlightenment: Wizards, Alchemists, and Spiritual Seekers in the Age of Reason. The author is John V. Fleming, a retired Princeton professor who has written several books on medieval literature. The first chapter is about Valentine Greatrakes, “The Stroker,” who attempted to cure scrofula and other diseases by touching, stroking, “the laying on of hands,” etc. In an earlier issue, I said that Jesus was part of a tradition of Jewish healers, sometimes called faith healers, or charismatic healers.

Fleming says that Greatrakes is significant partly because his healing occasioned a lively debate among mid-seventeenth century English intellectuals. Hermetists were inclined to believe in his powers, while followers of Newton’s “new science” were inclined to be skeptical. One might compare The Greatrakes Debate to the debate between Fludd and Kepler that I discussed in an earlier issue.

One Hermetist who defended Greatrakes was Henry Stubbe, a doctor based in Stratford-on-Avon.6 Like other Hermetists, Stubbe took a broad, tolerant view of religion. He wrote the first English book that defended Islam (An Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, and a Vindication of him and his Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians). Stubbe also advocated toleration toward Judaism. He attacked the Royal Society, perhaps because it rejected Hermetism.

Stubbe’s book on Greatrakes “bears the Latin sententia ‘One ought not to deny what is manifest because one cannot understand what is hidden [occultum].’”7 This is the same point I’ve often made: We shouldn’t say that something is impossible because we can’t explain it. I haven’t been able to trace this sententia (Fleming doesn’t give us the original Latin, or tell us where it comes from). It can be considered one of Hermetism’s chief principles.

4. Miscellaneous

A. Etymology:

B. I saw a movie called The Way. It’s about the famous pilgrim route in northern Spain called The Way of St. James, or Camino de Santiago, or Santiago de Compostela. The Way deals with a father’s feelings for his dead son. It’s a good movie, and gives you a sense of what the trail is like.

C. I saw the new documentary on J. D. Salinger. Lots of great information, lots of great images, but I found it a bit depressing. Too much attention to photographers stalking Salinger, and not enough attention to his prose style and other literary matters. In short, the film appealed to our lower angels, appealed to our basest kind of curiosity, instead of trying to teach us something or raise us up. And this is my big complaint about Hollywood: it appeals to our lower angels instead of to our higher angels.

D. I saw a Korean movie about Zen called Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East? It made quite a splash when it was released in 1989. It has beautiful scenes, but it’s obscure and hard to follow. What’s the best Zen movie? Perhaps Into Great Silence, a documentary about a Catholic monastery.

E. I enjoyed Microcosmos, an 80-minute movie about insects. It’s largely silent, except for insect noises. It has beautiful scenes, and it’s relaxing to watch. It was made by a French team in 1996. One might compare it to Winged Migration, which was also produced by Jacques Perrin.

F. There are some good documentaries about the singer/songwriter Bob Marley. There’s one made in 2012 (Marley) that’s 145 minutes, and one made in 1982 (The Bob Marley Story: Caribbean Nights) that’s 85 minutes.

One of the most dramatic episodes in Marley’s life was when he gave a concert in Kingston, Jamaica in 1978, when Jamaica was bitterly divided between two political parties, and there was gunfire in the streets. Marley managed to bring the leaders of the two parties onto the stage, and have them shake hands.8 I was reminded of the dinner that Proust gave when France was bitterly divided over the Dreyfus Case; Proust dared to bring both sides together, and tried to reconcile them.

G. I read a book by Ron Chernow called The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance. It won the National Book Award in 1990 (Chernow’s biography of Washington won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011). The House of Morgan has many virtues, but also many vices. It’s easy to read, filled with interesting stories, and teaches one much about banking and business.

But the author often glides over topics that he should patiently explain. He seems to think that readers want entertainment, not edification. He seems to concentrate on profit rather than reputation; he tries to give readers what they want, rather than trying to understand the truth and explain it. He seems to think that literature is a business, and a book is a commodity to be sold. He views writers as mercenaries who can only work if they’re paid, and can only spend the hours for which they’re paid; he tells us that, “My advance, if generous for a first book, could scarcely cover years of leisurely research, so I had to cram a gigantic amount of work into a brief span. Somehow I managed to research and write an eight hundred-page book in two-and-a-half years.” If Gibbon spent more than two-and-a-half years on his Decline and Fall, he must have had a larger advance?

Perhaps I should have read one of Niall Ferguson’s books, such as High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg. Ferguson is more scholarly than Chernow. Chernow began his career as a journalist, and later drifted into history.

5. The Architecture of Happiness

The local GreatBooks group recently discussed “The Significance of Architecture,” the first chapter of Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness. I wasn’t impressed with the piece. I’ve been criticizing Alain de Botton for decades — the sophisticated tone, the lack of conviction and passion, the lack of depth and originality. I now realize that I’m not alone: Alain has numerous critics. According to Wikipedia, “de Botton has written in a variety of formats to mixed response.... de Botton tends to state the obvious from a position of privilege and [his critics] have characterized some of his books as pompous and lacking focus.”

One person in the GreatBooks group asked, “What is he driving at? He seems to be on both sides of issues, on the fence, rather than committed to a position.” Another person said, “He says that buildings can’t solve our problems. We knew that already.”

Does he have any goal other than his own fame and fortune? Does he care deeply about architecture, or about anything? Is he just using architecture as a platform for elegant prose and lively anecdotes? He’s extremely intelligent, he comes from an illustrious family, and he has a knack for collecting anecdotes. But good anecdotes don’t make good literature, just as good icing doesn’t make a good cake. Alain gives us icing but no cake.

Here’s what Ruskin said about Dutch landscape painters:

The object of the great body of them is merely to display manual dexterities of one kind or another; and their effect on the public mind is so totally for evil [that] I conceive the best patronage that any monarch could possibly bestow upon the arts, would be to collect the whole body of them into one gallery and burn it to the ground.9

Ruskin has strong convictions. You may disagree with him, but at least you know where he stands. Alain doesn’t seem to stand for anything. Ruskin has profound ideas, he raises art criticism to the level of philosophy. But with Alain, art criticism sinks to the level of chatting.

Ruskin has reverence for what is great in Western civilization — reverence without sophistication. On the other hand, Alain has sophistication without reverence. Reverence isn’t easy. Reverence is difficult and challenging because it implies the effort to make yourself equal to what you revere. Could there be a more difficult task?

Alain started a group called Living Architecture, which engages prominent architects to design houses that can be rented by the public. One of the houses, The Balancing Barn, hangs out over empty space. In my view, a house like this represents the worst tendencies of modern architecture; it’s not beautiful or dignified or impressive, it’s merely zany. Alain’s involvement with architecture doesn’t seem to have positive effects; he doesn’t seem to steer architecture in a positive direction; he doesn’t seem to have good taste.

I reject the idea of “the architecture of happiness.” I reject Alain’s premise that architecture must generate happiness in order to claim our attention. Were the builders of the Parthenon trying to make people happy, or were they trying to exalt people’s feelings and honor the gods? When we visit the Parthenon, we’re moved by its history, touched by its beauty, impressed by its builders, we’re not seeking happiness.

Alain says, “The noblest architecture can sometimes do less for us than a siesta or an aspirin.” But we shouldn’t compare architecture to siestas and aspirins. Siestas and aspirins don’t try to move us, touch us, impress us. Architecture doesn’t aim to give us the sort of pleasure that a siesta or an aspirin gives us. Alain debases architecture by relating it to happiness, by comparing it to siestas and aspirins.

Perhaps Alain relates architecture to happiness because earlier in his career he related philosophy to happiness, and Proust to happiness, and his books became bestsellers. But he seems to want to acquire happiness by a frontal assault. Perhaps we become happy when we forget about ourselves, forget about our own happiness, and focus on the ancient Greeks. As Proust says somewhere, happiness doesn’t come when we pursue it directly, it comes as a by-product of the pursuit of other things.

Imagine that you travel to England, and you visit an abbey that was built 1,000 years ago. The abbey is in ruins, only one wall still stands. But you’re moved by the building’s history. Alain overlooks an important aspect of architecture: time, history. Ruskin understood the importance of history, hence he argued that we shouldn’t restore old buildings; restoration distorts history.

What we build today can be part of an architectural tradition, can have an historical reference. Part of the significance of architecture is in its connection to history. Architecture’s connection to history is as important as its connection to happiness, but Alain ignores this connection to history. Likewise, the Balancing Barn ignores history, ignores tradition. Modern architecture is often ahistorical, divorced from tradition. Alain sympathizes with modern architecture, and doesn’t appreciate the importance of history and tradition.

Consider, for example, the White House. It can only be understood in terms of the architectural tradition to which it belongs, and its effect on the visitor is shaped by its own history. Take away the tradition and the history, and there’s nothing left. If you built a copy of the White House in Korea, or a copy of the Parthenon in Poland, your copy wouldn’t move the visitor because it wouldn’t have any history.

© L. James Hammond 2014
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1. In Search of Schrodingerís Cat, Ch. 8, “The Experiment With Two Holes” back
2. In Search of Schrodingerís Cat, Ch. 8, “The Experiment With Two Holes” back
3. Six Easy Pieces, ch. 6 back
4. In Search of Schrodingerís Cat, Ch. 8, “Collapsing Waves” back
5. My theory of history is holistic, it sees people like Shakespeare and Beethoven as part of the whole, part of the renaissance spirit of their society. back
6. One wonders if Thomas Browne participated in The Greatrakes Debate. Browne seems to have been friendly to both the “new science” and Hermetism; he was admired by both Stephen Jay Gould and Madame Blavatsky.

One might compare Flemingís book to Robert Darntonís Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. back

7. Ch. 1, p. 57 back
8. The leaders were Michael Manley and Edward Seaga. back
9. Modern Painters, edited and abridged by David Barrie (New York, Knopf, 1987), Volume 1, Part II, Section i, Chapter 7 back