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August 1, 2006

"You Spin the Whirling Planets"

BILL MOYERS: In church on Sunday, we sang a 200 and some odd year old hymn, Franz Josef Haydn. With some contemporary words. And the words go, "God, you spin the whirling planets, fill the seas and spread the plain. Mold the mountains, fashion blossoms, call for the sunshine, wind, and rain."
Now the scientists wouldn't have put it that way. The scientists would have said there is an explanation for why the planets whirl, for why the rain falls, for why the seas rise, for why the mountains form. But knowledge isn't enough for us. It's not enough to know why-- how these things happen. We need the poetry don't we. Are we hard wired to seek that kind of meaning in life that only poetry, religion, and writing can give us?

Sorry, Bill (a fellow I usually respect), but isn't "God...filling the seas" -- as we would an inflatable pool -- also an "explanation," albeit a rather primitive one? Isn't it a stab at "knowledge," albeit, given what we know, a rather unconvincing one?

We're all for music, but isn't there less "poetry" and mystery in God molding mountains -- like some kid playing with clay -- than in the monumental, austere forces of (Newtonian) nature?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at August 1, 2006 10:15 AM


Sounds like you're going for the sublime, there, Mitch...... ? you been reading too many romantics I think. Seriously, the sublime is an incredibly interesting concept that starts w/ Longinus (a greek) writing in the midst of roman imperialism and the romantics, who shift it (some critics would suggest) in relation to british colonialism. it's got a very interesting history and for sure helped Enlightenment theorists such as Kant to theorize something 'godlike' w/out relying on 'god'... check out Laura Doyle, whose fairly recent book title on this is escaping me at present but worth a glance if you're going to pursue this thread...

Posted by: JM at August 1, 2006 7:15 PM

Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts has written a new book titled. "Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon".

He posits that memories and dreams of people who have died can seem so real that people often talk to them in their minds. These memories are so powerful they can conjure up the voices of the dead.

Early humans, faced with important choices they have no way to rationally answer, turn to their dead ancestors for direction. It would have been natural for them to ask for advice--which way to go to find water or how to proceed on a hunt.

Shaman would gain in stature when they talked to the ancients and "relayed" answers that actually worked. Thus we can see spirits, human ghosts arise--memes competing with memes--developing as self-awareness grew and language made stories turn into religions.

Like biological parasites, memes are not necessarily dependent on the welfare of their hosts. They demand a powerful fixation that it is sacrilegious to question your own beliefs and an insult for anyone else to try. "What a fine protective screen this virus provides, permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly!"

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 1, 2006 8:17 PM

bless you, JayS, just for being.

Let me twist your post a bit (having been influenced today reading John N Wilford's essay in the NYT on a recent conference on alchemy, pretty heavy stuff particularly re: Isaac Newton's deep, ongoing fascination and work therein simultaneously while he was developing all kinds of key 'real' scientific theories... see today's Science Times if you're interested) and thinking about how all that blends in interesting ways with people trying on one hand to acknowledge and accept scientific views of the world, and on the other, being immersed in (more recent on this blog's posts by M) "poetry" or other ways of thinking about human being and its relation esp to the natural world... I guess I think we do need 'both' -- we need documentary understanding of how things work in nature and how this does/n't affect us on multiple levels (and how we affect nature/the planet--I still think we mostly fuck it up but whatever) ... and then we also need somehow to be able to mythologize, metaphorize, idealize, our relations to each other, to ourselves, to the planet and the universe -- yes, and the sublime!

OK, I should stop. sorry. but why must it be either/or?????? i still keep asking, beating the poor very dead horse.

Posted by: JM at August 1, 2006 10:21 PM

I've had a hard enough time getting my wife to stop blessing me when I sneeze and you come along, damn you, JM!!!! But thanks a bunch for caring about my poor soul!

I wrote a program in college that wrote poetry. I just made lists of words that are full of "meanings" like: black, love, death, heart, etc., and had it form English structure. It could "write" thousands of poems a second. I took about ten of these to a small class and passed them out and asked the other students to tell me about the author. Just one girl was suspicious, but the rest were very taken in and some even refused to believe a computer wrote them after I told them! Meaning is internal. The power of poetry is in its ambiguity.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 2, 2006 10:58 AM

I don't give a damn about your soul, JayS, so no worries there. Just grateful for your humor, wit, and willingness to engage--i.e., being. Post one of those computer-generated poems, eh ? I'm curious what 'English structure' looks like ...

Posted by: JM at August 2, 2006 6:08 PM

I just meant sentence structure, like subjects, verbs, objects, prepositions, etc. I just had lists of those pieces and the different ways they could be put together to form sentences and let random number generators pick from the lists. Sorry, I don't have any of the poems or even the source code for the program. But it was not complex, I have taken much more time writing a song than I took to write the program that wrote poetry.

The point, to me--the pointer, was to show where meaning comes from. Symbols, symbols, sybols--all we have are symbols so we pretend they are reality. We see meaning in the world around us and don't realize it is only behind our eyes, not in front of them that perception becomes meaningful.

Where are you typing from, JM, are you a New Yorker like Mitch? Wherever you are, I enjoy your being here just as much, er, well, as much as I can in my binary way! .)

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 2, 2006 7:54 PM

That sense of structure is not neutral, and is culturally determined, I'd suggest. Has important implications for the way in which we enter into the symbolic order, the one that determines reality, consciousness, meanings... and to link this to the recent Atwood interview, the ways in which we internalize particular narrative structures (like 'the history of progress' birthed to us from the Enlightenment, or 'the story of America' as a providential, exceptionalist narrative) have incredible power to console, placate, blind us to the complexity of particular historical realities... (on the other question, doubtful anyone could be a New Yorker like Mitch...)

Posted by: JM at August 6, 2006 7:58 AM

I would like to know how many millions of times the phrase "the quintessential New Yorker" has been used, we love to group and label people, it just makes it easier to ignore their need for individual understanding. No, JM, nobody is a New Yorker like Mitch, but you are forcing me to be very binary with my question of where you reside now aren't you? Just a general metropolitan area would suffice.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 6, 2006 12:10 PM

About the poetry program: Of course, you are right, I was all over that program. I picked all the words and the different structures. (For some reason I really liked diagramming sentences as a kid). Those poems exposed the author. But not in the sense of the meanings those young readers perceived. That was the only point.

Posted by: Jay Saul at August 6, 2006 12:13 PM

"...isn't 'God...filling the seas' -- as we would an inflatable pool -- also an 'explanation,' albeit a rather primitive one? Isn't it a stab at 'knowledge,' albeit, given what we know, a rather unconvincing one?"

No, it's closer to an aetiology, a just-so story whose telling has a different setting-in-life than a scientific explanation. In this case, it's a poem, for Heaven's sake, set by Haydn and sung in a church. Fundamentalists would suppose it conflicts with a scientific account, I suppose as a gesture against modernity, disparaging its important institution science.

The polemicists for irreligion agree with them, but of course for another reason: take a poem literally and you can make it say falsehood or nonsense. Both ways read, in different senses of the phrase, in bad faith.

As for "knowledge," the word is said in many ways. You can distingush at least propositional knowledge ("I know how many meters high Mt. Blanc is"), knowledge by acquaintance ("I know what a clarinet sounds like"), and knowing-how ("I know how to speak English") -- which fits the sort of knowledge sought? Scientific knowledge can be construed as propositional, but it presupposes some of the other two: distinguishing red and blue, knowing what counts as a litmus strip and how to use it could all come into play in knowing that "This solution is alkaline." Moral knowledge, e.g. knowing that it is wrong to entertain yourself by torturing a toddler to death, might seem propositional ("I know that it is wrong to...") but it could be more like acquaintance (with an imperative "Don't...!" or a knowing-how (sc. how a decent human being doesn't act.) Should religion be trimmed to the propositional?

Religion could indeed offer only a "stab at knowledge," as when creationists try to answer a question about biology by searching the scriptures, stabbing at scientific knowledge. But religious claims to have achieved knowledge may concern other kinds of knowledge: acquaintance with G-d or a feeling of creatureliness that rises to a conviction. That is plainly the knowledge in the hymn.

Posted by: Dabodius at August 7, 2006 7:18 PM

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