Sunday, December 19, 2004

Things Are Not What They Seem

Dear Reader,

Heraclitus wrote "Eyes are more accurate witnesses than ears." Polybius, a later Greek writer, summarized this as meaning that vision is the more reliable sense. Modern readers are likely to interpret it the same way. It seems trivial.

Information out of context is noise. The problem is our own lack of context. When we read the rest of Heraclitus and study the culture of other Greek philosophers, we begin to find patterns that cause us to reinterpret what seemed obvious to us.

Two crucial pieces of context change the meaning of this entirely.

First, Heraclitus wrote in paradoxes, riddles, and double entendres. Little he wrote means only what it says on the surface. Heraclitus was later called "The Dark" or "The Obscure" because of this. With experience, we begin to learn to look for what he has encoded. The hidden meaning in his work is often the more important part.

Second, Heraclitus was aristocratic, and like most Greek philosophers deeply distrusted doxa--popular opinion. Numerous other fragments from his On Nature revolve around this theme more explicitly. Popular opinion in ancient Greece was transmitted by speech, which we hear with our ears.

In this fragment he advises us to look with our own eyes for the truth, not to trust to received opinion. He is also saying that the pursuit of truth is a lonely and difficult activity. There are no shortcuts to the truth. You cannot let other people interpret the truth for you. The pursuit of the truth is serious business, too serious to trust to others. Further, he did not say the eyes are accurate, only more accurate. Sometimes you will be wrong about things you investigate yourself directly, just as sometimes received opinion may be right.

This brings us to another crucial layer of meaning--the relationship of his original meaning to our own context today. Two ideas are readily apparent.

First, were he writing today, in our increasingly visual information age, he could not express these ideas in this way, because we are more likely to be exposed to popular or official opinions with our eyes and ears. This succinct statement does not work as well for us. In fact, it would be a challenge to come up with so concise a formulation of these ideas today, given the structure of modern culture.

Second, this implies a distrust of news media at a scale beyond what most modern people are willing to accept. In ancient Greece, speech was the primary mechanism of distributing news and propaganda throughout the culture, as well as gossip and popular opinion. Today, we have corporate media to do the equivalent job. Most moderns assume they are reasonably well informed because they are immersed in such media. Radio, television, books, magazines--Heraclitus advises us not to trust any of this. No matter how it is packaged, the content of our information media remains glorified gossip. This does not mean that we should cut ourselves off from these information sources, only that we should take it for the formalized gossip it is--a witness, but an unreliable one--and investigate for ourselves anything that really matters to us.

Seven words in English, five in the original ancient Greek--their meaning seems obvious and trivial, but the truth of it is hidden and important. The Greek term doxa comes from doke moi, meaning "it seems to me." Encoded within the Greek philosophical disdain for popular opinion is a further distrust of appearances and assumptions, of how things seem to us.

In short, Dear Reader, in this fragment of On Nature, Heraclitus both advises us and also demonstrates that things are rarely what they seem and that the popular interpretations of things are not trustworthy.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: In my remedial explorations of ancient Greek philosophy to date, Heraclitus emerges easily as my favorite. He is not an easy philosopher to read, as I hope this exploration of a single fragment reveals, and this is among the clearer fragments. Some are perhaps impossible to fully resolve given how little of On Nature is left to us and how unreliable even ancient interpreters of his work prove to be. Nevertheless, many of the remaining fragments eventually reveal themselves to be both profound and poetic, intense concentrations of meaning like philosophical poetry.

I can particularly recommend Philip Wheelwright's book Heraclitus for its interpretations; although even a few of his interpretations miss the original meanings, he nevertheless fully appreciates the philosopher's style and always works to unfold the intended meaning. Likewise, Brooks Haxton wrote a fine translation in Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, which I am reading now.

In the second comment on my previous blog entry, "Logos and Cosmos," my friend David Whitten added this url to a site with translations of Heraclitus's fragments by G. W. T. Patrick: Thanks Dave! I appreciate that each fragment includes English and Greek, as well as the sources. The translations are not as finely tuned as those used in Wheelwright's book, but they at least convey his obscurity and some of his flavor. Unfortunately, for anyone not already deeply familiar with On Nature, reading the fragments can be an unpleasant and misleading experience, so venture on your own with due warning. As I hope this blog entry made clear, with Heraclitus the meanings of things are often not what they seem.

From time to time in future entries I will work to untangle the meaning of other fragments. Dear Reader, you may also ask for my help with specific fragments in comments on this entry and I will gladly do my best to make sense of them for you. Nevertheless, take this fragment to heart and do not overly trust my interpretations either.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Logos and Cosmos

Dear Reader,

Though I do not believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, or God, or Heaven or Hell, neither do I believe in science's empty world, the accidental, meaningless universe. I believe in the cosmos and my place in it.

To make sense of this requires that we delve back to the deeper meanings of a few words.

"Universe" denotes the scientific concept of everything (alternate universes aside). Science's universe is governed by natural laws, but has no intrinsic meaning. What we mean by "universe" fits uncomfortably closely what the ancient Greeks meant by "chaos."

The structure of science, its base assumptions, only permit it to investigate reality in limited ways, heavily slanted toward mechanical analysis of finite, measurable topics. Through the processes of experimentation and analysis, science splits apart reality into tiny pieces, sorts and catalogs them, stitches them back together into a kind of Frankenstein's monster, and calls the results knowledge. This kind of understanding of reality the Greeks called technae, mere use-knowledge, and so our understanding of reality is expressed in terms of how we do or can imagine using reality for our purposes. The purposes themselves, as well as all non-technae aspects of reality, science has little to say about.

The reasons we investigate reality inevitably determine the techniques we use, which in turn inescapably determine the kinds of information generated, and thus determine how reality seems to make sense to us. Because scientific research is funded overwhelmingly by corporations or by government agencies that long ago became dominated by corporate interests (at least in America), science as it exists in the modern world is an arm of industry, above all about investigating reality with regards to how it can be profitably manipulated. The shallow, mechanistic, empty result we call the "universe." Science's "universe" is a homunculus of the cosmos in which most of reality is amputated, and the remainder is grotesquely twisted.

I do not believe in the "universe." I believe in the "cosmos."

"Cosmos" is the opposite of "chaos," and therefore the opposite of "universe." The cosmos has something the universe and chaos lack--the logos. I do not refer to the Christian Logos--the Word of God--but to the ancient Greek logos, which is quite different. I cannot define the logos for you because we humans are too limited to do more than catch the tail of it, if we are disciplined and passionate and lucky enough, but I can write a little about it so long as you keep in mind how inadequate my description will be.

The logos is the meaning and logic of reality. Reality is not governed by it the way the universe is governed by scientific laws; rather reality is the unfolding of the logos over time. Reality expresses the logos.

The logos is like an eternal, ever-changing fire that ignites all things, including us, transforms them, and consumes them.

The logos is like the perfect work of music in a single, eternal movement, developing countless parts and refrains according to its own intrinsic meaning and logic, and all of us and everything else in reality are themes and passages in that music.

The logos is a little bit like The Force from Star Wars, except that The Force is a debased logos that is both supernatural and merely utilitarian--we cannot know the logos nor control it, and there are not dark and light sides to it.

The logos is like the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu's Tao from his masterpiece the Tao Te Ching--not the later Tao of sorcerers nor the hippie Tao of just going with the flow, but the original awesome, incomprehensible Tao to which we submit like the reed or be blown down like the willow tree.

The logos was discussed in detail by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus twenty-five hundred years ago in his book On Nature, of which we have only fragments left. Even those few fragments reveal the kindred spirits of Lao Tzu and Heraclitus, despite their alien cultures.

The logos is the secret life of reality, the invisible metabolism that processes all things. This broader concept of life is discussed in detail by architect Christopher Alexander in his four-volume series The Nature of Order. When fully grasped, life and living processes as he explores them begin to suggest part of the nature of the logos. In this broader, non-supernatural, non-organismic sense of life, the cosmos is alive and the logos is its spirit and soul.

The logos is like fate. Each thing in the cosmos has its essential nature that it cannot escape, since each expresses part but not all of the logos, and that essence drives that thing toward some ends and away from others. Where things interact their essences affect one another, weaving together the outcomes of reality. Jokes, riddles, proverbs, stories, songs, lives, cultures, civilizations, species, worlds--all have their essences that drive them toward their specific ends rather than others. The weave of the logos creates the fabric of the cosmos.

The logos is like meaning. We may try to express it as the principles that guide all things, that prioritize and shed light on things. We may try to express it as wisdom, or as compassion, or ruthlessness. It is value-laden in profound opposition to science. It puts all things in context, without which they are mere noise. Putting all things in context, it thereby reveals the uniqueness of all things, at the same time that it reveals the interrelatedness of all things. The logos makes the cosmos a profoundly, intricately meaningful universe, with strands and webs and tides of meaning flowing through all things.

Above all, the logos is beyond us. The cosmos that reveals the logos is both too vast and too minutely intricate for us to perceive it clearly. We are tiny parts or expressions or aspects of the logos, and the part cannot encompass the whole. More crucially we are crippled. We are not intellects, not angels of wisdom, not fundamentally rational. We are especially willful animals, and we can only perceive reality through so many filters of bias, appetite, ambition, and delusion that our perceptions bear only a tenuous relationship to reality. Reality to us is a great Rorschach Test. As the Bible says, we see through a glass darkly. As Heraclitus wrote, eyes make poor witness for barbarian souls, or as he summed up, "Nature loves to hide." The logos is everywhere in plain sight, but we are blind to it, so the cosmos appears to us as a mere universe.

Believing in the cosmos and its logos, I believe I have a specific place in the cosmos but do not know what it is. I must learn about the cosmos to seek insight into the logos, and I must learn about myself as well to try to learn my place, my meaning, my purpose.

In summary, Dear Reader, I am a truth seeker. The truth matters more to me than I can express. I hope by the time I die I have become at least a little bit wise.

Sincerely yours,

Saturday, December 11, 2004


Dear Reader,

I do not believe in God, nor an afterlife, nor reincarnation. I believe we each get just the one life, starting more or less from scratch. I believe there are no supernatural entities who will clean up after our messes, nor that there are any other worlds available to us should we render this one uninhabitable to us.

Certainly I agree with Carl Sagan the odds are great that there are many many planets with life in some form throughout our galaxy, but that life may be alien to us, as may its ecosystems, and any worlds in our galaxy that are habitable to us are out of our reach for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever. I agree with Sagan the odds are good that some of that life is intelligent, and some of it older than we are, and therefore some fraction of it must be wiser than us. Unfortunately, the galaxy is huge, so the odds are poor that we will ever have the benefit of alien wisdom.

So, in summary: no additional lives, no additional worlds, no supernatural or alien wisdom available to draw on, no one to save us from ourselves. This is it.

In the film Contact by Sagan, Palmer Joss makes a statement I have heard from several religious people I respect, that they would not want to live in a world without God. I understand. We have treated the world and each other as though it and we are disposable, as though there are second chances, as though someone wise and wonderful were waiting in the wings to make things better. If we live our lives that way, we must go on believing it to insulate ourselves from the horrors of what we are doing. If there is no second chance, then the full impact of our blunders is unmitigated, and the bleak prospect of extinction shockingly looms over our children and much of life on Earth.

Whether we treat it so or not, life is precious. This one world that is the mother of life as we know it is precious. Each of us has but a single precious life; we shall not pass this way again. Wisdom and compassion are precious.

You are precious, Dear Reader.

Sincerely yours,

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Dear Reader,

For the past week I have been teetering on the edge of a new round of "bronchitis." I have stayed home resting, getting extra sleep, keeping my stress low. I have gone out a few times, usually in the evening after a day of resting, but largely I have been canceling my plans. I was unable to help my brother Rob finish moving on Friday; after a morning spent packing boxes, we held off on the move itself until Monday, but I had to cancel that, too. I canceled gaming yesterday; we watched "Down with Love" and "Coupling" instead. I was supposed to fly to Dallas today to visit with philosopher Kenneth Smith; I just wrote to him canceling my visit.

No one knows exactly what my "bronchitis" is. I have been getting it for years, and in recent years multiple times per year. It looks like bronchitis--I often have a bronchial infection treatable by antibiotics--but it is not bronchitis--when the infection clears up the mucus production and coughing continue until I have another infection. I took years of antibiotics before we figured out it was useless. We are better off letting the secondary infection run its course, since it is not the driver in this illness anyway, and antibiotics always hurt you with their side effects even when they do not help with their primary effects. I may have incurred long-term problems from the eradication of my intestinal flora by antibiotics, but I still get the "bronchitis," now more frequently than ever.

My primary doctor, Dr. Tom Ballard, is a naturopath, and he has helped me find ways to get healthier, so I can get this illness less often. Last year, following his advice, I managed to go a year without bronchitis. This year, slacking off his advice, I have had it twice and am skating around the edge of a third time. He is the first physician I have worked with who sought to treat the long-term problem rather than treat each case as completely separate and just try to suppress the symptoms.

My wife has an excellent ear-nose-and-throat specialist, Dr. Martin Greget, who was the first to ever take her frequent recurrences of sinus infections seriously as something more than random chance, bad luck, or bad genes. He searched for and discovered the cause for the frequency of her infections--crucial information none of her previous doctors could be bothered with--and when she has infections he takes cultures before he prescribes antibiotics to ensure he is prescribing something that will actually clear up the infection, something none of her previous doctors or mine every bothered with.

Consider that: out of two lifetimes of doctors, only one bothered to take cultures to make sure he was prescribing appropriate antibiotics. No wonder we are breeding superbugs. No wonder medical error in America is the fifth leading cause of death.

For twenty years I have made my career as a software developer and troubleshooter specializing in complex systems, specifically, the VistA medical software, and I know what responsible troubleshooting looks like. It requires scientific discipline, curiosity, investigation--in short, detective work. Martin Greget is the real thing. I could use him as a case study to teach new troubleshooters how to do it. Most of the doctors I saw before Tom Ballard I could use as examples of the converse.

Based on my experience, most doctors are rushed and sloppy, relying on habit, common industry practices, and assumptions, all of which are heavily informed by marketing copy from drug companies, which is why their first impulse nine times out of ten is to push pills. Pills promise an easy solution to suppressing symptoms, and they are the industry standard, which makes them the reflexive response to the overworked, highly stressed, overwhelmed state of mind most doctors find themselves in. The crazed working conditions begin with the hazing of internships, with sleep-deprivation and terrifying medical-school debts the norm for new doctors. The managed care movement, which is above all about extracting greater profits from healthcare, then pushes doctors away from time-consuming treatments toward quick "fixes" in a manic drive to minimize the hospital's investment needed to get the payoff from patients. A responsible, careful physician--and I refer here to practice, not intent--is resisting powerful economic and social impulses, and often pays a price for doing so. There are physicians out there like that--bless them--but you will have to search to find them, and you will have to learn a great deal about your illness and how it is treated to distinguish the good from the sloppy.

Responsible troubleshooting takes time, more time than doctors have available or than patients can sometimes afford to pay under modern market conditions, and it takes emotional reserves to embark into the unknown and question one's own responses and reflexes long enough to have any chance of finding the truth. It is emotionally taxing and time consuming to accurately troubleshoot complex software systems, but much, much more so with a complex biological system, which is profoundly more intricate than any software system. Nine out of ten software troubleshooters go for the quick fix rather than the difficult truth, and given how much harder biological troubleshooting is, you can work out for yourself how many doctors go for the quick fix.

In other words, Beverly's and my hit-and-miss ratio with the medical system and the high rate of medical error in America are not accidental; both are the logical and inevitable results of how the industry is structured.

Recently I began working with a pulmonary specialist. My counselor urged me to work with one to try to find the underlying causes of my recurring illness. Despite my frustration with corporate medicine, I agreed we should see if the best it has to offer could help find the underlying causes. On my first appointment with my pulmonologist, she wanted to send me home with sample packets of pills to try, despite having run no tests and despite my being between bouts and therefore showing no symptoms. I did manage to convince her that we should run tests first and make our prescriptive decisions based on the results, but I should not have had to be the one to argue for a scientific approach. It is easy to see how so many people wind up on unwarranted prescriptions. I hope that our tests will turn up some useful information, and that she will prove as interested in the diagnostic side of medicine as in the prescriptive side, but only time will tell.

Meanwhile, I am taking hot baths and showers, drinking tea, spending time in a sauna, getting sleep, and hoping this blows over. I will go back to following Tom Ballard's advice more assiduously and perhaps things will work out as well this winter as they did last year.

Keep your fingers crossed for me, Dear Reader.

Sincerely yours,

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Land Words

Dear Reader,

I enjoy that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as an afterthought, that he developed the cosmology and history of Middle Earth mainly to make his artificial languages more realistic. That must be one of the stranger reasons for writing a great work of fiction.

His play with language extends beyond such fantastic creations as Sindarin, Quenya, and Khuzdul to English itself. In preparation for the release of Peter Jackson's movie adaptations, I read LOTR out loud to Beverly and made a surprising (to me) discovery: this work was meant to be read out loud. Even aside from the songs and poetry, Tolkien's prose frequently slides in and out of Old English patterns of writing, with punchy rhythms, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and even occasional kennings--telltale signs of an oral tradition, qualities that make the language roll off the tongue pleasurably in ways that are not as enjoyable read silently. I never noticed this before because I only began learning Old English in the last six years, for my Dungeons and Dragons games, and I had not reread LOTR recently. I thought I knew this work that I had read so many times, that I loved and had studied so often in my youth, yet I had overlooked an essential and obvious quality.

Once The Fellowship of the Ring woke me up to his diction, I noticed he also delved into Old English for vocabulary, resurrecting or revitalizing geographical terms like coomb, dingle, dell, dale, vale, etc. I was struck by the effort he made to bring Middle Earth to life visually, with precise terms used to describe the folds and textures of the landscape.

I realized that my own grasp of these terms was slack. Influenced primarily by the thesaurus, dictionary, and fiction rather than living experience, I could not clearly define these terms, nor distinguish them from each other. I thought valley, vale, dell, and dale meant more or less the same thing. When I asked around for help, no one I knew could distinguish them clearly either. We had all thought we knew what these words meant, but it turned out all we knew was how to use them plausibly in common English sentences to "prove" our knowledge.

I was primed to notice this because I have been corresponding with a Texan philosopher, Kenneth Smith, who had alerted me to the erosion of meaning in language over time, especially during the modern era. I was ready to give up the powerful American myth of progress to consider the more equivocal changes wrought by evolution, in which we adapt to our environment, for better or for worse. Dr. Smith had explored how meaning erodes from philosophical, ethical, and religious terminology over time to make it more palatable, less confrontational for us, but I understood as well how it could apply to changes in lifestyle. We no longer live close to the land, so the language of the land becomes a foreign language to us. Like any foreign language, if not practiced it ebbs. Thus, mountaineers and rangers retain more land-language than the rest of us, but even they lack the depth of terminology a British woman had in the year 1000 C.E., a woman who lived all of her life, not just the recreational or professional part, close to the land, her fate bound to it visibly, her need to know it like a friend clear to her.

This realization wrought a change in me. I had already come to want to re-inhabit my land, to know the trees and birds and shapes of it, but with this most recent reread of Tolkien I came to want to learn the language of it also. Underneath our clumsy "hills" and "mountains" and "valleys" runs a deeper, more agile language of the land. The meaning of words stems not from how we use them now, but also and maybe more importantly from how and why they were coined and how they have been used since. A dell is not a dale is not a valley, not even if the thesaurus says so. A callow is not a hurst is not a hill, no matter what the dictionary says. Tolkien showed the way with his revelation that in our forgotten past lies a wealth of terms for describing the exact relations of water to land to vegetation. These eroding or lost old terms can be for us the roadmap back to being able to think about the shape and character of our world, can give us the framework for thinking more clearly about our relationship to the world.

"Gnothi Seauton," read the inscription on the temple at Delphi--Know Thyself. Because information out of context is noise, we cannot know ourselves unless we know what we are bound to, where we come from. After all, though Carl Sagan is right that we are star-stuff, that is only indirectly true. Directly, we are what we eat, what we drink, and what we breathe, and these things come directly from the soil and wind and water of our world. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust is not the language of metaphor but literal truth, a truth from which modern culture insulates us, alienating us from the sources of our very lives. We come to imagine that human life is above all a human creation, and thereby we lose our understanding of how deeply our fate is tied to the fate of the natural world. We are Earthlings, children of Earth, of the soil. To know ourselves, it is necessary (though not sufficient) that we know the land from which we sprang. To get to know the land, we must relearn to speak its language.

To help me relearn, I read through thesauri and dictionaries, even the Oxford English Dictionary, looking for clues, but I have found that even our etymologists have lost track of the geographical nuances Old English once had. The Shropshire Highlands in England, for example, are full of unusual geographical names--such as Callow Hill, Bromlaw Callow, Pulverbatch, Hampton Beech, Radlith--that upon further study reveal nuances of usage and meaning lost in most recent works of linguistics. No expert is going to hand us our lost language on a platter, ready to use. We have help--and I particularly want to thank Margaret Gelling and H. D. G. Foxall for their fine reconstructive work in The Place-Names of Shropshire--but if we want to recover our lost linguistic agility, we will have to work for it, just as we must do for physical agility.

So, strange as it may sound, to help my quest to grow wiser, to know myself and my world better, I am poring over maps, reading dictionaries of Old English, and reading publications of the English Place-Name Society. I am writing a lexicon for my own use, a document that describes words not through the most concise possible summation of their meaning, as the dictionary does, nor through equation with other words, as the thesaurus does, but through paragraphs and sometimes essays on what each word means, where it came from, and how it is used, examples of its use, comparing and contrasting each with all similar words until I fully understand the nuances of their meanings. For example, while eating breakfast today I studied "fell" and "tump," began investigating "how," and looked for good examples of "hurst."

A few examples I have learned over the last couple months:

"Dales" go with hills ("over hill and dale"); they are the valleys between and among hills. England also sometimes uses "dale" to refer to long river valleys that descend from highlands.

"Dells" are forested dales.

"Hursts" are forested hills ("over hurst and dell" perhaps?).

A "callow" is a bald hill--no forest.

A "glen" is a narrow valley on a mountain.

A "gill" is a forested glen.

Now when I hike in the Cascade, Olympic, and Pacific Coast mountain ranges, I look at the land around me in a new way, running my mind over the contours of the land, the texture of vegetation, the currents of water and air, and ponder the words that best describe what I am experiencing.

Dear Reader, I love my home so much. I love the mountain forests, the river valleys, the glacial lakes, the ocean rocks and lonely islands, the waterfalls and volcanoes, the rain and wind, ferns and wildflowers, salmon and spiders and snails. I love the long gray months of drizzle and the hilly streets of the cities and towns. I am head-over-heels in love with this land.

So now at last I begin to empathize with this Oxford linguist who backed his way into the greatest epic of the English language, his passion for understanding and exploring language, and above all his deep love for his English countryside. His affection and eloquence brought his beloved land to life in new form in his novel, so vividly that millions of people around the world fell in love with it too without ever having traveled to England. His eloquent passion inspires me to study English in turn, to quest deeply for words to help me give voice to my passion for my home land, this rain-drenched coast.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: I want to thank my fourth grade teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Seattle from fall of 1975 to spring of 1976 for reading to us in class The Hobbit; The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; and A Wrinkle in Time. She gave me my first taste of Tolkien, and I have been in love with language and literature ever since. Thank you, Mrs. Yorozu.