Sunday, February 17, 2008

Paraeidolia on Steroids

I've been perusing on again, off again the Presocratic Philosophers. Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximander and the like. I originally wanted to reread the available fragments of a poem by Parmenides. But as I was working my way through The Philosophers of Greece by Robert S. Brumbaugh, I found myself waylaid by Anaximander.

One of the nice things about reading the philosophers prior to Plato, is that all of the extent fragments and testimonials by ancient authors can be thoroughly read in a couple of hours. This means that understanding these fragments can take decades, and even then one is never sure of one's interpretations. Because of their incompleteness, the fragments require guessing at how to make up the missing material.

Brumbaugh's book does not present the texts of the available extent fragments. This is not as big of a problem as it might seem. For many of these ancient philosophers there are only a few words, fragments of a thought, the doctrines of some are only known indirectly. Brumbaugh praises Anaximander for extending "the concept of law from human society to the physical world -- a clean break with the older view of a capricious, anarchic nature;" and for inventing "models to make complex natural phenomena easier to understand." [p.18]

Maybe I've grown overly skeptical in my old age, Brumbaugh presents Anaximander's contribution to human thought without the least suspicion or self-consciousness. As if the imputation of human-created institutions and practices to the natural world outside the polis represented an advancement of human knowledge. Civilization, culture, knowledge, order, and humanity were to be found primarily in the institutions and associations formed with other Greeks of one's tribe and locale. The etymology of "barbarian" illustrates how most Greeks felt about the non-Greek, non-human world.

The use of human-created law as a model for understanding the natural world outside the polis strikes me as nothing less than astonishing. It should be remembered that this move this use of human-created Law as metaphor and regulating principle of the Natural World most commonly has been interpreted as an advance over mythological thinking. And, what typically characterizes "mythological thinking"?

Mythological thinking is the personifying the forces and events of the natural world. Personifying means analogizing natural phenomena to human personalities. When a pagan says the Wind is blowing angrily, he does not mean that the wind is merely blowing with great, destructive force, he means the Wind is angry in the same way that he or any other person can be angry.

This all leads naturally enough to the real question here: is regularity in Nature a product of human understanding or is that regularity there independently of human understanding? Following Brumbaugh's hint that Anaximander discovered the use of models, it would seem that our understanding(s) of the world around us (and by extension ourselves) are only approximations. A model by definition is not a 1-to-1 copy of what is being modeled. The presumption is that some elements of what is be modeled may be safely excluded from the model. The purpose to which the model is put determines which elements are included and which are excluded.

From this, folows the realization that every account of natural phenomena will have a left over residue. Properly speaking it cannot be said that Nature follows some lawful order, nor that Nature is unlawful. Where the human mind is not, Nature is chaotic in the mythological sense of Chaos: lacking order and regularity until the coming of the Gods.

One of the odder thoughts that came to me while I was working this through concerns the existence of the so-called external world. A distinction can be made between the constitution of individual and specific objects in human perception, on the one hand, and the recurrent experience of the unexpectedness of events and phenomena, on the other. To the extent that sense perception is an activity of the brain, the existence of a given object as perceived independent of any perceiver ought to strike one as nonsensical.

What is "Paraeidolia on Steroids"? Mythological thinking, however primitive it may seem, finds/creates order in the Natural World by imputing personality and personal traits to natural phenomena, either singly or in aggregate. The ur-experience of regularity for human beings is found in human social interactions. First comes social interactions, then comes the "discovery" of order. Order, regularity and dependability are all descriptive of social interactions. Consequently, the "discovery" of order in the Natural World is seeing patterns in natural phenomena that can neither be said to be there nor not to be there.That is "Paraeidolia on Steroids".

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