Buzzword Books - unusual, intriguing, intelligent, perceptive

Here, you'll find musings from our authors and staff. We don't promise daily updates. Just posts worth your time.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

HOME ECONOMICS

Martin Jensen - author of How to Keep Fit Without Exercise and How To Get What You Want ruefully examines the current plight of middle class Australians.

 

You are the average, middle-class Aussie husband married with two kids. You earn $80,000 per year. Perhaps $100,000 if you are fortunate. A princely sum ten years ago but now the average wage. Still, on the face of it, you're much better off than some.

Deduct the mortgage and insurance, kid's schooling or school expenses, rates, taxes, repairs, payments to plumbers, electricians, lawyers, tax agents, computer geeks. Plus medical expenses: dentist, orthodontist, optometrist, physio, podiatrist...

And then there's the cost of getting around. Car registration, petrol, road tolls. NRMA, tyres, batteries, servicing…

And don’t forget groceries, chemist, shoes, clothing, gym subscription, birthday presents, holiday expenses, motels, restaurants, entry fees to exhibitions, and that child in Kenya or fire-damaged Koala your wife has been conned into paying XX dollars a week to support, although everyone knows that she is funding more expensive commercials to make the organizers rich.

Then there's planned obsolescence. The fridge, washing machine, clothes dryer, stove, hot water system, mower, hedge trimmer, heaters, aircon, vacuum cleaner and hot blanket will fail at factory specified intervals.

Forget expensive hobbies. Sky-diving will have to wait. Tennis lessons for the kiddies have to be put on hold. Forget the caravan and jet ski, the opera subscription and scuba gear. And you'd better quit coffin-nails or thousands more dollars go up in smoke. 

So it's important that no one in your family becomes seriously ill, develops psychological problems, is involved in car smashes, falls off a ladder or otherwise injures themselves. Because that initial $80,000 has now been spent several times over and you are looking at a second mortgage on the house. Or, God help us, slinking in to a payday lender!

They say freedom is when the wife's divorced you, the kids have left home and the dog's died. But not financial freedom. You've married someone you now hate, given her half the house plus landed yourself with a maintenance burden that will possibly sink you. And next you're supporting two families. No, there's no way out.

Is there a moral to this story? Yup.

Being born is our first mistake.

 

You can source Martin's books on Buzzword.




 
 

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

WHAT DO WE BELIEVE?

 Here is the third chapter of the book currently being drafted by Clinton Smith. Enjoy.

 

What do we believe? Generally, just about anything we're told.

We can fervently believe any piffle, poppycock and balderdash. 

We can believe in atheism, spiritualism, cargo cults ─ in literal interpretations of the devil, heaven, hell. We can believe that God is on the side of our armies, that he notes the sparrow's fall, that human sacrifices placate him, that killing infidels is his wish.

Once we believed that the sun moved around the earth and that we were the centre of everything. 

In 1492, clerics believed that an all-loving, all-forgiving God hated heretics. So, they stretched them on the rack or burned them at the stake. 

Today, Muslim martyrs wearing bomb-belts believe that, if they incinerate a crowd of non-believers, they'll go to paradise and be pursued by 72 concupiscent virgins. 

But even fanatics can't believe in a purposeless universe and still believe in 'God'.
When science dumped understanding for knowledge, it sabotaged religion. And when religion abandoned insight for belief, it became equally uninviting. Science can't see the wood for the trees and religion can't see the trees for the wood. So, both now inhabit a wasteland of blowing paper and dried bones. 

It wasn’t always this way. 

Long before the Dark Ages, the knowledgeable ones were, at once, priests, scientists, alchemists, natural historians and philosophers. Whatever we now think of their notions, their search was integrated by the striving for a single world view. 

In ancient Egypt, Greece, India and medieval Europe, science was an aspect of religion and psychology — and remained an integrated study even as late as the 1500's.

For instance, Descartes, was an engineer as well as a philosopher. He studied optics and analytical geometry. He formulated the First Law of Motion before Newton did and repudiated magnetism, gravity and action at a distance. He thought that inertia made bodies persist not in a circular but a straight motion and that planetary orbits were the result of vortices in ether. He reduced the world to particles whose only reality was extension in space and motion in space and time — a sally at physics that so pleased him that he hoped to complete it entirely by himself. As a philosopher, he believed that the idea of god implied his existence. Today, despite his flawed assumptions, we would call him a Renaissance Man.

The Cartesians (those with notions deriving from Descartes) saw animals as machines. They believed that the human animal, however, was fitted with an appendage called mind. And that God was still around somehow, tacked onto the system.

Then Newton worked out that planetary orbits were governed by gravity and centrifugal force. His billiard-ball universe was accurate enough to be a benchmark for 200 years. His Laws of Inertia, Acceleration, Reciprocal Action et al banished mystery from the cosmos. But he was still unable to account for the precise movement of the planets. So, he considered God a corrective force guiding the worlds. He was, in fact, a Deist — believed that a divine mechanic governed the machine. 

Darwin, who wrote The Origin of Species was also vexed by a meddlesome god. In 1860, in a letter to Asa Gay,  he wrote, 'I cannot think that the world as we see it is a matter of chance, and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of design. ...I am, and shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle.' The whole point of his thesis was that variations were not directed. In a letter to Hooker in 1856, he cited, 'the clumsy, wasteful, low and horribly cruel works of nature.'

Although Darwin hardly used the term 'evolution', the dumbed-down popularisation of his theories has become the non-thinker's mind-worm — the vaunted 'theory of everything'. We now believe in progress, the continual advancement of knowledge, the progressive refinement of politics, conduct and social systems. Even though bald evidence shows the futility of these views.
Take progress, for instance. Are things really developing, getting better, or merely becoming more complex? Every innovation creates six more insoluble problems. Technical advances are matched by an increase in generalised stupidities. Such as the scores of SSBNs (Ballistic Missile Submarines) lurking in every ocean, ready to vaporise the world's cities. 

As for the advent of social media, the internet and instant communication, its data gathering and manipulation is deeply destructive. It creates multiple problems such as identification and information theft, scams, bullying, fake news, propaganda, and increasing slavery to IT technology. And incites an abnormal world-wide reaction to a single local stimulus. 

Everything is designed to be engaging, to grab and keep our attention — to commodify our love of gossip, sensationalism and hyperbole. To waste our time and dumb us down. To manufacture compulsion. The need to click produce an instant dopamine hit. If we engage with social media for ten minutes, our oxytocin level soars. 

At last count, forty-eight countries have at least one government agency engaged in placing blatant falsehoods on social media and engineering consent and dissent. Shady media outlets on corporate payrolls fabricate doubt, disorientation and distraction. They control information through the censorship of outlet-swamping or 'noise'. This promotion of mistrust, fear, disinformation designed to manipulate thought and behaviour is now a profitable market using the methods of advertising and PR. The appeal is emotional, compulsive, addictive and amplifies negative traits. Advertising, of course, is propaganda. Not truth but hype.

This destructive digital gully-trap promotes conspiracy theories, outlandish claims, deep fakes, confusing 'facts' and fiction. The constant bombardment of tainted 'leaks' makes us question the validity of all media. 

With the internet now manipulated by pressure groups, multinationals and state autocrats, the upshot is social divisiveness and public chaos. Monopolies such as Facebook and Twitter pay lip service to removing tainted accounts, but are acutely aware that this cramps their bottom lines. So, as long as gathering subscribers is their business model, malicious actors will continue to thrive.

Meanwhile adolescent girls are given the chance of indirect aggression, the ability to shame and belittle with 'who's in, who's out rants. Adolescent boys are fed first-person war games that have been found by psychologists to promote callous indifference.

Everywhere you see agitated, self-promoting zombies shackled to their cell phones, compulsively micro-managing their profiles. Long before such technology was invented, Reich was already talking about, 'Compulsive, contactless sociability.'

The 'evolution' mind-worm also prompts us to believe that life started from inorganic matter, or arose spontaneously from amino acids in the oceans of the primitive earth. This assumption fits a barren cosmos devoid of sagacity or purpose because it negates all semblance of design. It means our presence here is incidental and reduces us to sophisticated apes.

The materialist, Hobbes, prompted this comment from a complaining theist: 'The root of all atheism consists in making senseless matter the only existent thing.' 

Despite such protests, God is no longer 'needed on voyage'. Knowledge and reasoning are enough. We believe in appearances only and believe that life can be organized through science alone.

Scientists believe that the whole can be understood by examining its parts. Their method isolates things from their surroundings. It separates items that can be weighed, numbered and measured from things that can't. It works in stricture of useful abstractions and finds in these fragments no meaning or design. But the layman, believing the analysis inclusive, accepts that view automatically, no matter how much clerics argue that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. 

But can one really explain anything in terms of itself? Is it credible that nature created itself — was self-derived? That matter created matter? Can we, for instance, by dismantling a radio, extract the music and voices it emits? Or extract thoughts by dissecting the brain?

So, as the gap widened between science and religion, the inner and outer aspects of cosmology became progressively opposed.

As science began to learn more and more about less, the less it understood. But it knew enough to shred believers in benevolence from above. It reduced the hierarchy that had guided our values and equated religion to a childish fiction equivalent to Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. 

In a godless world, we became governed from below — by isolated objects, genes, atoms, blind laws of attraction, random forces... By an automated cosmos and closed system. Meaning became meaningless. 

Meanwhile, the remnant of religion, still convinced that 'design' required a vaguely anthropomorphic deity, closed its cage of thought in defence of its beliefs. 

Now, the literalists who still attend its temples are well-meaning people with conventional minds snared by self-comfort, establishment and routine. Or those having a bet each way. Or doing it for the kids. Or emotionally cathartic happy-clappers swaying to the rants of money-motivated 'prosperity theology' evangelists.

But beyond the churches, mosques and synagogues are still a reticent few who covertly believe that there is 'something out there'.

Is

Monday, 22 March 2021

WHAT DO WE THINK?

 Our last post was actually the first chapter of a forthcoming book by Clint Smith. Here is the second. Now read on:


We have reviewed the mystery of existence from the scientific aspect. However, physicists are not the only specialists studying the nature of reality. The riddles of cosmology and consciousness also exercise philosophers. 

Here we find monists, dualists, pluralists. And, in the Western tradition, sub-categories such as epistemologists, idealists, logical analysists, positivists, empiricists, existentialists, phenomenologists, postmodernists, utilitarians… All have notions about the world, mind, existence, conduct and morality, generally expressed with a sophistry even academics find obscure.


 There are more than a hundred established philosophers in European history and to catalogue them opinions would need a second book. So we have selected a representative few who tried to fathom the enigmas of reality.


We will leave Socrates and Plato for the present and begin much later with the first of the early modern philosophers, Descartes (1596-1650). He was a dualist who believed in two substances ─ mind and matter ─ and is known for his assertion Cogito, ergo sum. (I think. Therefore I am.)  This maxim is derided by quietists who point out that discursive thought is a barrier to consciousness and that 'I think. Therefore I am not.' is closer to the truth. While this is obvious, it is also out of context because Descartes first established the fallibility of sensations. He said that our senses were too limited to experience reality.  And, as it was possible to think independently of sensations, he reasoned that thought, and thought alone, proved that he existed.


Spinoza (1632-677), a neutral monist, believed in one supreme infinite substance named god or nature. Contrary to Descartes, he believed that this was a material entity and that mind and matter were aspects of the same substance. All was god or nature. 


Leibniz (1646-1716), an idealist and theist, claimed that everything must have a reason for existence. And this reason must lie in something outside the world of appearances.


Berkeley (1685-1753) claimed that we have an intuitive knowledge of ourselves and that 'To be is to be perceived.' Therefore, there was no such thing as matter. As matter was inert and senseless — neither perceived itself nor was perceived — it simply didn't exist. Then where was a bucket, for instance, when no one perceived it? Ah-hah, said Bishop Berkeley, a benevolent God perceived it and so it was sustained by the mind of God.


Hume (1711-1776), an empiricist and sceptic, had a secular philosophy and doubted human experience could yield knowledge. He disputed Berkeley's claim that we had a self and said that we are nothing but a bundle of perceptions ─ that we know the mind only as we know matter, by perception. Therefore, the mind is merely an abstract name for ideas, perceptions and feelings. As mind does not exist, reason is no final test. He said, 'If we take into hand any volume of metaphysics, let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number. No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter or fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.' 


So, for Hume, mind did not exist. And, for Berkeley, matter didn't either. As one wit said of them, 'No matter. Never mind.'


Enter the Prussian philosopher, Kant (1724-1804) who rejected both empiricism and rationalism. He said that the apparent world derives its structures from the nature of the mind that perceives it. 'What objects may be in themselves remain completely unknown to us. We know nothing but our mode of perceiving them.' He said that the world is an appearance constructed by our minds and that there must be some kind of reality beyond the phenomenon. This would be the thing in itself — the noumenal — but that we can never know this reality.


Therefore, cosmic conundrums are beyond us. Space and time, he said, are not things perceived but modes of perception. So, for instance, when knowledge tries to decide whether the universe is finite or infinite, the mind rebels against either proposition.  
Similarly, the question of time, and whether all we know had a beginning. Just as we can't conceive eternity, we can't conceive a first cause because a first cause uncaused is inconceivable. Is there an escape from these blind alleys? Kant said there is. It is to remember that space, time and causation are modes of thought and not external to our limited perception.
Equally, he said, religious concepts can't be proved by theoretical reason. He contrasted the symmetry and unity of nature used by religion to indicate creationism or supernatural design with the other side of nature — waste, duplication, suffering and death. He considered design no proof of providence. For him, design was internal design — the design of parts of the whole. He then attacked the concept of life springing fully formed from dead matter. This can't explain, he said, the growth of even a single blade of grass.


So Kant, at one swipe, deconstructed science, religion and the mechanistic view of evolution.
Later philosophers such as Heidegger (1889-1976) claimed that existence is fundamentally a 'being there' which is entangled in the world that surrounds it and that the part serves to disclose the whole. He coined the term Dasein, meaning the being which we ourselves are, or the primacy of being in the world. Our being, he said, is grounded in what we do, culminating in a stoic reverence for the possible, despite the meaninglessness of life and the inevitability of death. 


Then came the pessimism of Schopenhauer, the nihilism of Sartre and the romanticism of Nietzsche. The 'death of God'. The primacy of ego and the will. Man stripped bare — thrown entirely on his own resources.


We again became lone truculent voyagers in the arid waste of space and to think otherwise was a dream. An impractical ideal. Humanism now paralleled the purposeless universe of science, providing thin gruel indeed for the young and impressionable mind. Even theism's emotional nourishment dwindled.  Western thought foundered on the unyielding rock of despair.
 
So much for the thought-addled West. The East had a different approach.


The Vedic sages (1500BC) were concerned to discover the one thing, which if known, could allow them to understand everything else.
By disciplining the mind, they intuited that nothing is separate. They said that only Brahman, the supreme entity, is real. That 'Thou art that'. And that the Self is Brahman. That when the separate observer disappears, our innermost essence is revealed as identical with the Unformed, beyond time space and causality. 


The Hermetic view coincided. The tablet of Hermes Trismegistus (127BC) states that all things come from the One and from the mediation of the One and have their birth from it by adaptation. As above, so below. That which is above is the same as that which is below. And its force is above all force, for it vanishes subtle things and penetrates all solid things. And that we need to separate the subtle from the coarse.


Lao Tzu (around 300BC) asserted that non-existence is not equivalent to nothingness but is the condition before existence came into being. That existence and non-existence are co-dependent. 'The wheel is useless without the centre hole in the hub.' So the sage should see, as his inner goal. absolute vacuity. 'Forever tarrying in purposelessness.' He who knows himself is enlightened. Not knowing that one knows is best.
'He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know. The great Way is always inactive yet there is nothing it does not do. All things come from existence. And existence from non-existence. By non-action everything can be done.' 


The Buddhist Mahayana teachings (100AD) include the seminal Heart Sutra which states that form is not other than emptiness and emptiness not other than form. That all things are marked by emptiness — not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without gain or loss. 'This is truth,' it adds, 'not mere formality.' 


The sutra's connection with quantum states has been eulogized by New Age enthusiasts. It also coincides with Vedantist and Taoist views. Buddha refused to engage into the cosmological speculations of his disciples, declaring them 'matters not conducive to edification.'
Plotinus (204-270) said that an ineffable 'One' structures all existence. And that this being/non-being is everywhere, nowhere and beyond all language and thought. But, as it wills itself to lower graduations of unity, it becomes multiple and material. And that the undifferentiated unity can be experienced intuitively by a person able to strip themselves bare of all concerns and concepts.


Shankara (686-718), who reformed Hindu philosophy, said that the objective universe has no real existence. That the ineffable is reality itself and that it intrinsically has no diversity whatever. That it is stainless, indivisible, unbounded, unmoved, unchanging, beyond all action and absolute, without beginning or end. That the world is nothing but utter consciousness, knowledge and peace. That the cause of our bondage is the mind. And a pure mind leads to liberation. That the aim of the philosopher should be to free his mind from all distractions, to attain dispassion and bask in the consciousness of the ineffable.


Avicenna (980-1037) a Muslim born in Bukhara, said that we know we exist and that existing things come and go. They do not exist by themselves so arrive through a cause. And, as a chain of causes cannot be infinite, they must end in a sole self-subsistent entity. This is considered, by Islamic scholars, as a proof of the existence of God.


The Sufi poets (1000-1029) used mystical analogies to express their ecstatic cosmology:


The Centre is within me and lies as a circle everywhere about me.
I am the Merchant and the Pearl at once.
Time and space lie crouching at my feet.
I plunge into myself and all things know.


There is none but Him. But, alas, no one can see Him.

First you must cross seven oceans and a very long road.
Then a fish will draw you to him — such a fish that
When he breathes, he draws into him the first and the last.
This marvellous fish has neither head nor tail.
He holds himself in the middle of the ocean.
He sweeps away the two worlds
And draws to himself all creatures without exception.


There is a fundamental difference between Western and Eastern views. The Western approach is intellectual — the mind fussing with the attempt to rationalize infinity. But the Eastern approach doesn't start with the mind at all. It begins with quietening the thoughts and attempting to be present enough, nakedly aware enough, to arouse raw insight and intuition.
Kant, for all his intellect and sincerity, never achieved this insight and never met anyone who had. So it may seem odd to see his conclusions equate with Sufi mystics, Plotinus and the Vedanta. 


Gurdjieff, the monumental being who changed Eastern insights into Western terms remarked, 'If Kant had introduced the idea of scale into his arguments, many things he wrote would be valuable. This was the only thing he lacked.'


The idea of scale? 


This is expressed in the Hermetic teaching, 'As above, so below.' This cryptic statement needs to be investigated or, as people now say, 'unpacked'. It means that, if everything is an aspect of the One, then the individual is the Universe in miniature. That the Microcosm mirrors the Macrocosm — of course, on an infinitesimal scale. 


According to this theory, we are an image of the universe and subject to the same laws. And that, by studying ourselves in depth, we will be able to understand everything else.
Is there any evidence for this view? There is in so-called esoteric teachings where methods of practical psychology (the 'how' of religion) have presumably been preserved.


Maharshi: 'When the creature sees and knows himself without attributes, that is knowledge of the Creator, for the Creator appears as none other than the Self. The whole cosmos is contained in one pinhole in the heart.'
Shankara: You yourself are the non-duel Brahman, spotless like the ether, without inner or outer, without attributes, changeless, timeless, without dimensions or parts. What else is there to know?
Attar: 'The Centre is within me and its wonder lies as a circle everywhere about me. I am the merchant and the pearl at once. I plunge into myself and all things know.'
Zen Master: 'You must realise that the centre of the universe is the pit of your belly.'
The New Testament claims that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us.
And so on and so forth.
This brings us to Plato's teacher Socrates (469-399BC), the man who said, 'Gnothi seauton.' 'Know thyself.'  
Do you see the implication?


It suggests that we cannot know anything by simply thinking which is, at best, a peripheral, superficial process that occupies one aspect of ourselves. But if we truly are the Microcosm, the mirror of the greater world, by looking into ourselves profoundly, we can understand the cosmos. 


Here is an extract from a book of Eastern wisdom, quoted by Gurdjieff:

'To know means to know all.
To know a part of something means not to know.
It is not difficult to know all, because in order to know all one has to know very little.
But in order to know that little, one has to know pretty much.'

Hence the assertions of the Vedic sages.
By truly knowing ourselves, can we understand all?
Is the way in the way out?