Friday, April 24, 2009

The Expressible and Inexpressible and the Boundries Between

What do we expect from Science? What do we expect from the other ways we seek to understand our individual and collective experience: art, poetry and the domains of endeavor people think of as "spiritual"?

Once in a commentary on the poet Mary Oliver I found the following definition

"Poetry is what takes us to the boundaries between the expressible and the inexpressible"

Its been years since I read that but it has always stayed with me. It articulates a sense that there are aspects of human being, aspects of our experience, that can be deeply felt but not codified into a statement whose truth-value can be parsed and then evaluated discursively. This can seem like a weird thing for someone who has spent a life-time in science to say. As I kid I was attracted to science specifically because it promised an absolute knowledge of an absolute (I was a platonist early on it seems). But as got older this seemed more like an idealism (no pun indented) that a true description of the situation.

I am, of course, still in love with science and but now I think it offers us a more local kind of certainty embedded in a global question that it beautifully exposes. The world is out there and it pushes back. Of that there is no doubt. But in the totality of human experience how many ways are there to know to its shape and form?

How do we embrace the irreducibility of of our own experience conditioned by our personal narratives, with the sense that there are constants guiding that experience. Science reveals a world of exquisite order and subtle patterns that can be articulated with precision. How we respond to that order is about reason and our other myriad faculties.

I would argue that in our response such "revelation" we are taken to the boundaries of what can be expressed in language (mathematics included) and what eludes expression. The question is this: how to acknowledge such a boundary while staying close to world which shows itself to us. In the comments to the last post the metaphore of a gyroscope was offered. That can be quite useful. There is a great quote from the Buddhist tradition which could also be said of science: "The purpose of any practice is to not fool yourself".

That is the work.


  1. I love this question you are posing here Adam – especially because it focuses on how we can balance that transcendent ‘boundary’ state with being grounded in the world. Too many people see these two states as incompatible – if not diametrically opposed (which is of course very symbolic of the tired old science/religion dichotomy). This idea of balance is also why I love Valera’s “embodied mind” stuff too.

    We obviously need the rational mind, with its wonderful ability to reason and evaluate – but in so many ways, it is only a ‘window’ to our lived experience. Since what is truly inexpressible transcends the mind (and the mind is often where we fool ourselves the most!) I believe that what is frequently the ‘forgotten link’ in these kinds of discussions is the wisdom of the physical body. This is where we actually experience the diversity of life, beyond the perceptions of the mind. The body is where both the emotional poignancy of a poem or a piece of music, and the material sensations of the physical world can be felt with acute awareness. Our deepest and most profound experiential states are felt, much more than they are ‘comprehended’ – and the body also has the capacity to keep us elegantly attuned to (and grounded in) the world in which we live. But we – especially in modern Western society – are conditioned to live most of our lives in our heads, running endlessly on those various hamster wheels of thought.

    Not sure if you guys know of the philosopher Eugene Gendlin, but he formulated a powerful psychotherapeutic technique called “focusing”, which is similar to certain meditative practices, and utilizes the ‘felt senses’ of the body to access areas of the psyche which cannot be reached through the conscious mind. By going within and cultivating an attunement with the body, various ‘layers’ of awareness can be accessed. Gendlin’s approach drew from humanistic psychology, and from William James. And James, in his ever astounding wisdom (intellectual crush still going on here :)), wrote much about the how the internal sensory capacity of the body can inform our responses in far more powerful ways than the mind is capable of doing.

    This always takes me back to that same concept of ‘presence’ I mentioned before. Attunement with the body is what grounds us in this state of presence. And it is here where I believe that the inexpressible awe of existence, and the simple awareness of feeling our feet on the ground can meet in a place of complementary truth.

    Interesting isn’t it, that so much religious doctrine preaches detachment from the body, and that so much science ‘doctrine’ teaches detachment from feelings. Both are integral to the balance being sought here, and yet so easily dismissed by so many, in favour of ‘higher’ realms (be they heavenly aspirations or intellectual ambitions).

  2. Lovely post, Adam, and beautiful commentary from you Jayne.
    You are so far ahead of me that all I can do is offer up the true story of what happened to me.

    Mountain hiking is my obsession and I have always pushed the boundaries of the possible. One peak, Peak Formosa in the Tsitsikamma Mountains is the highest and most challenging in my locality. If you could climb it in two days from the south you gained entrance into the company of a select few. To climb it one day from the south was regarded as near impossible. So I climbed it in two days, then one day and finally crossed over from the south to descend on the north side in one day and crossed back over the peak the next day, never done before.

    That is the background. Now I resolved to do the crossover, there and back in 24 hours, alone, like the other trips. So accordingly I trained very hard and chose a day with good weather forecast and full moon.
    With eager trepidation I set out and at quarter to midnight parked at the Mountain Club parking spot deep in the Tsitsikamma forest. To my astonishment I saw a VW Camper parked there and four young guys squatting next to a fire on the grassed parking area. The Camper was decorated with the flowers strongly reminiscent of the '60s flower power era. The young guys were typical surfing dudes. They were on their way to Jefferies Bay, a surfing paradise further down the coast. I squatted next to the fire to warm myself and chatted to them briefly. They asked what I was doing in the forested mountain range at midnight. See that peak in the moonlight? Yes. I'm on my way to climb it. Oh, good luck then. Very casual and unsurprised, as I said, surfing dudes.

    So I set off on my long, hard and dangerous climb. As I steadily toiled up the mountain ridges I thought about them with dismay. The Forestry Department would find the traces of fire and we in the Mountain Club would be blamed. Too bad, nothing to be done now. And so I struggled up the steep slopes until disaster struck; heavy cloud rolled over the mountains bringing cold wet weather. With zero visibility I stopped knowing that to continue would invite disaster. I curled up under some straggly bushes and slept as best I could. The next morning I struggled back down the mountain slopes in bitter disappointment at my failed attempt.
    I got back to the parking area and saw that my surfing dudes had left. Concerned about our Club's reputation I thought that I better try and remove all traces of the previous night's fire.
    Now I searched, and searched and searched and searched again. There was no trace of fire. All I found was lovely pristine virgin grass that had never been disturbed. Impossible, so I searched again. But there was not the slightest trace, not even tire indentations in the grass.

    Now I was confronted with a contradiction, an impossibility. Something had happened that was plausible, consistent and left me with clear, tactile and detailed memories. And yet there was not the slightest trace it had ever happened. An impossibility. A deeply troubling experience since I am a rationalist who rejects any suggestion of the 'supernatural' together with their coterie of suggestible, excitable and mendacious followers.

    I offer up this story to you Jayne because it resonates with what you said " focuses on how we can balance that transcendent ‘boundary’ state with being grounded in the world. Too many people see these two states as incompatible".
    I have no explanation and make no claims other than the bare facts.

  3. Experiences can be incredibly detailed and real to the experiencer and so inexpressible to everyone who wasn't "there". Visions - especially ones shared with a couple of other people - can be so compelling, but like my own, they don't answer the deeper questions. Worse, they make for a deeper mystery to 'explain'. Perhaps that's why the spiritual terrifies the skeptical, the fact it is out of our hands and beyond our present understanding in its immediacy and not observable at our leisure when we can bring our tools of analysis to bear against it.

    I've never been very settled in traditional religious understandings of such things - they seem as comforting and limited as the sceptical 'explanations' offered to rationalise such things. Art seems better able to handle them, visual or the word-pictures of a master story-teller. Perhaps that's why Scripture - the mythological variety - is so enduring.

  4. Occasional Reporter, your story made me think of this quote from Annie Dillard:

    “We wake, if ever at all, to mystery.”

    It does evoke the unanswerable, and so much about this experience of life really is (so far…) unanswerable. But it’s good to be awake isn’t it? :)

  5. qraal, I so agree that Art and Myth is where it's at in terms of speaking to that gap between the 'religious' and the 'skeptical'. Nothing stays with us like powerful imagery - and the imagination itself is such a thing of beauty and mystery.

  6. The rock, the squirrel and the woman: some thoughts on the categories of, Existence, Living and Being.*

    One thing these three items share in, is that all of them are equally comprised of atoms in constant motion- but how are they so different from each other?

    We can say of all three, that they exist. But when we shift to the category of living, it is only the squirrel and the woman who move on to the next category as they equally share in the quality of aliveness; which is something more than existence: All living items exist but not all existing things are alive. Obvious.

    When we compare the woman to the squirrel, could- and should we differentiate them on another level from aliveness? Or does the category of 'living' adequately encompass them each, so that no further differentiation is really necessary? It seems to me that science has pretty much decided that the categories of existence and living are sufficient for fundamentally understanding women and squirrels.

    And yet I don't see any squirrels chiming in here. (Though I hear that astrophysicists are considered quite squirrelly by their peers....)

    An obvious question that isn't really considered is, where in nature do you find the level of order labeled Homo Sapiens-Sapiens except for in Human Being? We who live from the "hard problems of consciousness" are the only ones in the universe who know that such problems exist. Hell- we're the only ones who know that the Universe exists.

    So on a level, we share in the categories of existing and living every bit as much as rocks and squirrels; but there is something else that the woman participates in, that up until now at least, is inaccessible to anything but human being. This something else is what I would put as a category or dimension and call it Being.

    Being is its own animal. It exists beyond living. By all scientific measures a woman can be deemed fully alive while at the same time, when measured by metrics that pertain to this uniquely human dimension, this same woman can feel an utter lack of vitality: on the outside, we see her alive; but on the inside, she experiences "deadness". I would say that anything or anyone who is alive participates in the category, Live; but just because a woman is alive doesn't mean she is participating in the dimension of Being.

    I think Being is the something else we need to better understand and serves as the context for any discussion of transcendence.

    * Jayne, because of your lament over the under-utilization of female pronouns when speaking of God, I made use of Woman for my discussion. Besides, squirrels deal in nuts so men were involved here too. ;)

  7. Something to ponder.

    James Hillman writes this line: "We each bear a uniqueness that asks to be lived, and is present before we can live it."

  8. Hehe... thanks for bringing in some feminine energy there gottschalk :)

    I have to say that I've been thoroughly enjoying all of this - but I'm going to be taking a break from here for a while (or longer) to focus more on some other stuff.

    (oh, and gottschalk, I will leave you with one last thought/question... Are you really so certain that we're the only ones who know that the Universe exists? :)).

    It really has been a pleasure interacting with all of you!

    Take good care... and if our paths don't cross again, may they take us always to better places.

  9. Why I'm an atheist who believes in God.

    When Copernicus showed the sun to be the center, he not only upset a religious grounding, he put the nail in the coffin of a centuries old scientific idea that upset non-religious culture as well, a la Thomas Kuhn.

    Before Copernicus there was Ptolemy- who's name labeled the scientific and philosophical world view in which the cosmos existed as three levels: the celestial level where things floated contained all things perfect. Our terrainian level contained imperfection as things here didn't float. And of course we know what the subterrainian contained. This idea was validated by the circular movements of celestial bodies since circles signified perfection. God being the essence of perfection, of course lived somewhere in the land of circles.

    And then somebody noticed that celestial bodies were moving in elliptical pathways- not circles: an existential shock ensued. Until relief came in a credible explanation: "because we're looking up, even though the bodies themselves are moving in circles, we'll see them as epi-circles". The cosmological theory held, and Kuhn, if he knew then what he knows now, would have recognized this pre-Copernican moment as a case study in paradigms and the way we ground ourselves by them: And as he cited, people- even scientists- like their groundings solid. Copernicus's revelation took hold when people were willing to shift their grounding theories.

    Theism is based on a Ptolomayic view of the cosmos and anything about God revealed at the time, would be seen in that context: how could it be any other way? The revealer, if she's more sophisticated to the lookers, is constrained by their level of understanding and its ensuing paradigms.

    So now that we live in a cosmos revealed to us by Hubble's photographs, we can plainly see that there no longer exists a celestial penthouse where a theistic styled being of epic perfection can reside. ( I asked my 8 year old niece where she thought heaven was and she pointed up. When I asked her where heaven was for Australians, her mind kinda shorted out.) Still, when I experience Being itself, I encounter a presence that I feel comfortable calling God.

    In this presence, that I both grasp and feel it's grasp on me, I experience what the Greeks termed agape': the love that sustains the other on their terms (Truth) and at the same time what the Greeks termed Eros: the love that yearns with a fire to connect and create (Beauty).

    So when it comes to transcendence, now that I have a more sophisticated context in which to see revealed things, I find God- the Ground of Being- not out there but at the depths of my own Being: the depths of my irreducible subjective experiencing of all that is.

    The brilliance that I derive from the work of scientists is better understanding of the True and Beautiful as I've found that revelation abounds everywhere if we're willing to experience it. I would argue that beside being embodied intelligence, we also are, an embodied metaphysic.

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