First post: Why this blog?

January 30, 2007 by David Nortman

We are living in a time of unprecedented worldwide transition that is at once promising a better life for all and threatening the survival of Western civilization. The urge to know everything has brought us to a point where the more knowledge we obtain, the more knowledge we need in order to handle the increasingly complex world that we have created. The promise of modernity as well as its ideological premises are in a fragile state, and people are finding that quantity of knowledge, money, or freedom does not itself make life worth living. Instead, people are realizing that the urge to know everything has to be accompanied with the urge to understand how everything fits together; that the desire for ever more comfortable living should not supplant life’s simplicity; and that unrestricted freedom for all, especially when uncoupled from responsibility, has ushered in an era of decadence that could well lead to the collapse of Western civilization.

My desire to contribute to the dialog around these issues stems from my having experienced a transition in my life that resembles what I just described: As a small child I began flipping through the atlas even before I could read, and soon after began reading the encyclopedia, naively believing that I could thereby learn everything there was to know about the world. Later on I became interested in philosophy, and more recently in alternative medicine. Common to all my activities was the objective of connecting with some sort of ‘complete’ vision of the world. This desire continues to inform my daily existence and has been the most enduring motivational force throughout my life.

In philosophy the mechanistic paradigm, which we learned at school and continue to teach our kids, has long been discredited, and is surviving simply for the lack of an alternative. Cutting-edge ideas from physics are regularly touted as just about to usher in a new world order. New holistic paradigms, breakthroughs in consciousness studies, and spiritual paths are sprouting like weeds. All this is promising, but this global paradigm shift is still in its infancy: the new world-view is more compelling than the old, but it is still vague and blurry. At the same time, the geopolitical situation in which we find ourselves is worrisome, and time might soon run out for Western civilization, because we have inherited a world-order that is based on outdated cultural and political ideals.

My intention is to make a humble contribution to the shift in consciousness from a mechanistic to some sort of living, ‘holistic’, or ‘integral’ paradigm by articulating the latter in greater detail and precision than has been done thus far. This requires bringing together under one platform seemingly independent ideas emerging out of disparate disciplines, defining how they relate to each other, and articulating the reality that is implied thereby. This will require a multifaceted approach consisting, first, of the study of the scientifically accessible world in the traditional, ‘objective’ manner and, second, the study of consciousness from a subjective perspective. Finally and most importantly, it will require going beyond science and psychology to philosophy and metaphysics in order to formulate a coherent picture of the world. Forays into politics will remind us that theory must not lose its connection to everyday life.

In order to achieve this objective I will be exploring a wide variety of topics which, when considered together, will serve to clarify and refine the emerging world-view. On the way I will be looking at important philosophical issues, revolutionary ideas, little-known or under-appreciated books, and other interesting tidbits. Enjoy the journey!

הומאופתיה קלאסית

August 04, 2006 by David Nortman

שכגדכגדכ גדכ גדכגד גד כגד כגדכגדכץ
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The Library of Babel

July 03, 2006 by David Nortman

In the short story The Library of Babel Argentinian metaphysical writer Jorge Luis Borges tells of an infinite library. In this library are found all the books the world has ever seen. In all languages. Their translations into all languages. Further, all the books that ever will be written. And those that never were written. Not to mention those written in languages that never existed. And so on. The trouble is, the library is unusable! Just try grabbing a book, and you are likely to face an incomprehensible jumble of unfamiliar letters. All the knowledge of the world, all its most precious secrets and deepest mysteries, are somewhere within this library, yet only within reach of the infinitely lucky.

The potential

We, too, have our Library of Babel: there is the World-Wide Web, the fully-mapped genetic code, row upon endless row of black letters on white paper, the daily news consuming both the world’s forests and our minds. We have Google promising to map the world’s knowledge—recalling myself as an eager 5-year-old determined to learn eveeeeeeeeeeerything by devouring the atlas and encyclopaedia. Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelly recently described his vision of the single library, The Library of Everything. This library will have not only all the books, articles, and web pages ever written but will also see its users hyper-linking, tagging, and commenting on the text, much as blogs, Wikipedia, and social netweorking sites such as del.icio.us are doing today to the existing web.

Kelley is a visionary who believes that we are at the cusp of a new reality wherein all the knowledge of the world would be available to people living at the farthest reaches of the world. A child in Tierra del Fuego or Easter Island could access the venerable library collections of the world: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, the Library of Congress, even their equivalents outside of the English-speaking world, and any tiny library anywhere that would care to join the project, will all be at the tip of a keystroke. We already possess the technological means for turning this dream into reality: given present technology, at most a few large rooms would be needed to house the computers comprising this fully-digitized library; distributed networking (the inter-linking of individual computers through the Internet to provide massive computer power) would further simplify things. The distributed nature of the process of digitization would similarly guarantee that, given sufficient will and broad appeal, the world’s books could be scanned in time. Assuming their legal availability—an issue that is being much thought about and fought over these days—books could become the ultimative nodes of the World-Wide Web, each a refined product of a hard-working human mind seeking for his voice to be heard.

The potential downside

Seeing all this excites me but also makes my head spin. In fact, I often experience this phenomenon when visiting a book- or record-store: I enter fresh and eager, and exit exhausted and confused. Perhaps this is me, but when faced with too much choice, I choose not to choose. Economists have begun to recognize this phenomenon, which clashes with classical theories concerning what they refer to as ‘rational choice’: classically speaking, we were said to be rational creatures who delight in abundance—“the more, the merrier.” It turns out, however, that we humans do not always delight in the great freedom that we are said to crave more than life itself. Instead, as described in Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice (reviewed here), abundant choice often brings up the anxiety associated with the thought that, for whichever choice that we have made, perhaps one of the other ones available to us would have been better. So we have a psychological reality to deal with here: the value of The Library of Everything when considered per se increases without bounds as the library grows, but its value to us decreases in direct proportion to the cognitive overload we experience when faced with the choice of which item to pull off the e-shelf. We need not actually to be faced with an infinite library: after all, to some of us the neighborhood record-store is sufficient for triggering this anxiety.

This problem of accessing knowledge is, of course, what brought about search engines in the first place. Rather than displaying all the world’s web-pages on a flat platform—perhaps a possibility in the first days of the Internet, or if we were to borrow Time Square’s giant display—Google has provided us with the premier tool for sifting through endless amounts of data without setting our heads spinning. Indeed, I do not suffer from overload when executing Internet searches: they seem more like serial monogamy than, say, a visit to a harem (which, by the logic above, would set my head spinning and my feet rushing out the door). But I do find myself spending more time ‘googling’ (no longer a proprietary term but a verb immortalized in the Oxford English Dictionary!) than communing with fellow human beings. All that in the name of knowledge.

This arms race between the expansion in knowledge and our ability to access it is ongoing. Whether or not we are set to win or to lose is an open question. In my next entry I will propose a guiding principle that could help us keep ahead in this race between human and computer.

The Two Meanings of ‘Objective’ and ‘Subjective’

June 06, 2006 by David Nortman

Most of us would like to think of ourselves as objective and abhor being subjective. Scientists and the sharp-minded are objective—weak-minded people are subjective. Western society is run on the principles of science—undeveloped societies by opinion and superstition.

But the definitions of these words is must simpler: ‘objective’ is what pertains to an object, say the statement “This table is white”; ‘subjective’ is what pertains to a subject, say “I feel great,” or even “He feels great.”

Some statements are about objects, some about subjects. Some statements are valid and reliable, some invalid and unreliable. Moreover, statments about objects may be valid and reliable or invalid and unreliable, and likewise for statements about subjects. Based solely on the dual definitions of the words, there are four possiblities:

  • Valid, reliable statements about objects
  • Valid, reliable statements about subjects
  • Invalid, unreliable statements about

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Important Knowledge vs. Unimportant Knowledge

March 04, 2006 by David Nortman

In my last post I introduced the tension that exists between the accumulation of knowledge and our ability to access it, suggesting that more knowlege is not better because of our limited ability to interface with unlimited information. This issue is directly relevant to the overall mission of this blog, namely the articulation of some sort of ‘framework’ of reality. But how is one to make a start at this ambitious undertaking of ‘holoscience’, or ‘knowledge of the whole’? If knowledge is regarded as a collection of data, with each data-point as important as any other, then such an undertaking is evidently hopeless. There are, however, many other ways of regarding knowledge found at the base of various philosophies proposed over the centuries. Without, however, resorting to any of those, I would like to take up the conservative position according to which knowledge is indeed the accumulation of facts, and propose a simple way of handling the ever-increasing mass of data with which we are faced from year to year.

We may observe that it is not uniformly important or relevant. By being selective about what we attend to we are able to focus on aspects of

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