January 25, 2019

1. The Origin of Ideas

Many years ago, I visited Ed Banfield and he started the conversation by asking what I was doing of late. I said I was reading, finding quotes to support my ideas. He laughed, and said, “I don’t think it’s supposed to work that way.” He felt that theories should emerge from study, not precede study.

I’ve always believed that big ideas come from intuition, not research. This is true of ideas in the sciences, and also of ideas in the humanities. Big ideas are more likely to come from a 20-year-old than from a 60-year-old, though the 60-year-old has had far more time for research. Einstein understood this, so when he was about 60, he said, I’m past the age for creating big ideas.

I always felt that Einstein must have reached his big ideas prior to research, prior to experiment. I recently came across the following:

As Einstein has emphasized, the physical scientist only arrives at his theory by speculative means. The deduction in his method runs not from facts to the assumptions of the theory but from the assumed theory to the facts and the experimental data.1

Newton took a different approach, or claimed to. Newton said, “Hypotheses non fingo,” I make no hypotheses, my theories come from the data, from experiments.

When I chatted with Banfield, my big idea was a theory of history, a theory of renaissance and decadence. One of the leading modern philosophers, Ortega y Gasset, predicted in 1942 that our understanding of history would be revolutionized by a theory that came prior to research, not from research: “We are now approaching a splendid flowering of the historic sciences” since historians will first “construct an imaginary reality” then compare it “with the actual facts.”2

2. Charles Fort and Continuity

Back in 2004, I discussed an American movie, and said, “I like the conclusion of the movie: the protagonist, now an old man, reflects on his life, and says, ‘in the end, everything merges into one, and a river runs through it.’” When we’re young, we strive to be individuals, we strive to be different and better. As we get older, we may take comfort from the thought that, in the end, everything merges into one.

In politics, too, there’s a striving for individuality, but an eventual merging into one. A nation, a race, strives to be separate, special, better, but gradually merges with the outside world. We try to stem the merging by building higher walls, or having a higher birth rate, but the outside world finds a way in. The Romans were special and successful for centuries, but eventually the borders disintegrated. Japan separated itself from the outside world for centuries, but eventually the outside world broke in.

Twenty years ago, I tried to illustrate the idea of continuity by discussing a tree:

Stop reading and look out of the window. You see a tree and you think, “that’s a separate thing, I don’t care what anybody says.” Now reflect: the tree grows leaves. Are the leaves part of the tree, or separate from the tree? Part of the tree, no doubt. But if the leaves die and fall to the ground, they appear to be separate from the tree. When they disintegrate, however, and provide nourishment to that same tree, they appear to be part of it, not separate from it. Like leaves, seeds may be seen as part of the tree, or separate from it. If a seed grows into another tree, should we call it “separate”? Isn’t the second tree of the same substance as the first? “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” And if the tree draws its life from sunlight, water and air, can we call it a separate thing? Is it not part of the sunlight, the water, the air? Is it not just another form of sunlight, another form of water and air? Could it be that everything is a form of everything else, everything is One?

Now stop reading and look at that tree again. Is it really a separate thing? And if it’s not, then you and I aren’t either, for the same reasons that the tree isn’t. Aren’t you and I forms of sunlight, water and air, forms of everything else? And if we have a child, is he not separate and yet the same, external yet internal? If an apple is in our ice box, it appears separate, but if it’s in our stomach, then what? If it becomes part of our brain, then what?

The boundaries that demarcate things are not as clear as common sense supposes. The boundaries that demarcate things gradually vanish when we look at them closely. We begin to see the world as one world, one process, one stream of change. We begin to see ourselves differently, and we begin to define that little word ‘I’ differently.

Charles Fort, an American philosopher whom I mentioned in a recent issue, has much to say about continuity.

Everything merges away into everything else.... All “things” are not things, but only relations, or expressions of relations.... White coral islands in a dark blue sea. Their seeming of distinctness: the seeming of individuality, or of positive difference one from another — but all are only projections from the same sea bottom. The difference between sea and land is not positive. In all water there is some earth: in all earth there is some water.

The young intellectual strives for individuality and independence. He tries to break free from his parents, but he falls under the influence of a revered writer, a father-figure. As Fort put it, “All things break one relation only by the establishing of some other relation. All things cut an umbilical cord only to clutch a breast.” A hermit goes into the desert to find solitude, but he’s obsessed with a girl he knew in high school, his solitude is peopled, his solitude isn’t solitary.

The ambitious writer strives for immortality, but is anything immortal? Fort says, “Every man... who works for stability under its various names of ‘permanency,’ ‘survival,’ ‘duration,’ is striving to localize in something the state that is realizable only in the universal.”

When I studied the psychology of genius, I found that it was impossible to distinguish the lower grades of genius from the higher grades of talent. We can be certain about genius only in extreme cases — Leonardo, Einstein, Shakespeare, etc. Fort makes this point in a more general way: “In Continuity, it is impossible to distinguish phenomena at their merging-points, so we look for them at their extremes.”

Fort calls our attention to the merging-point between animals and plants. When we look at this merging-point, Fort says, we can’t distinguish animals from plants, just as I couldn’t distinguish genius from talent.

Nothing can be proved to be an animal — because animalness and vegetableness are not positively different. There are some expressions of life that are as much vegetable as animal, or that represent the merging of animalness and vegetableness. There is then no positive test, standard, criterion, means of forming an opinion. As distinct from vegetables, animals do not exist.

Perhaps we should call Fort a Monist insofar as he believes that the universe is one; we can’t distinguish between mind and matter, spirit and substance:

Material and immaterial are of a oneness, merging, for instance, in a thought that is continuous with a physical action: that oneness cannot be explained, because the process of explaining is the interpreting of something in terms of something else.

Idealists say that the world exists only in our head, the world is our idea. The leader of the Idealist school is George Berkeley, sometimes called Bishop Berkeley (he was the Bishop of Cloyne). Berkeley called his theory “immaterialism.” If materialism says that nothing exists except matter, immaterialism says that matter doesn’t exist, only ideas exist.

Fort doesn’t subscribe to Berkeley’s theory, but he doesn’t subscribe to materialism, either:

We are not realists. We are not idealists. We are intermediatists — that nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal: that all phenomena are approximations one way or the other between realness and unrealness. So then: That our whole quasi-existence is an intermediate stage between positiveness and negativeness or realness and unrealness. Like purgatory, I think.

Fort argues that chemical elements don’t exist (because an atom of one element can change into an atom of another element? Or because an element can have different isotopes/flavors?). “The chemical elements are only another disappointment in the quest for the positive, as the definite, the homogeneous, and the stable. If there were real elements, there could be a real science of chemistry.”

Nothing can be defined, Fort argues, and nothing can be proven. “All sciences begin with attempts to define. Nothing ever has been defined. Darwin wrote The Origin of Species. He was never able to tell what he meant by a ‘species’.”3 Likewise, Newton struggled to define gravity.

What Fort calls “continuity” might also be called “relativity” — the idea that nothing has an absolute, independent existence. This idea might be an idea of the time, an idea that ripened in the time of Fort and Einstein. (Fort was born in 1874, five years before Einstein. Fort doesn’t mention Einstein in The Book of the Damned.)

The idea of continuity/relativity expressed itself in various fields, including literature and literary criticism. Clearly-defined fictional characters gave way to environments, relationships. Fort said, “not one of us is a real person, if, physically, we’re continuous with environment; if, psychically, there is nothing to us but expression of relation to environment.” The literary critic G. Wilson Knight realized that there was a common trend in science and literary criticism. Knight quoted a scientist:
“We must not think of patterns as if they were built out of particles, but that what we have called particles, may ultimately be better explained as components of patterns.”4
Knight suggested that we substitute the word “characters” for “particles”:
We must not think of patterns as if they were built out of characters, but that what we have called characters, may ultimately be better explained as components of patterns.

An example is Proust’s narrator. “Although we are always hearing his voice, the Narrator emerges as a curiously shadowy character.”5 Proust’s narrator has no absolute, independent character; rather, he has a series of relationships, a series of obsessions.

The idea of continuity/relativity can be traced throughout the universe, from physics to literary criticism. There are no independent “things” or particles or people. My theory of history reinforces this argument by saying that individuals are influenced by their society’s instinct, their society’s life- or death-instinct.

Perhaps no writer has extended the idea of continuity more widely than Fort. He extends this idea to morality, and blurs the distinction between good and evil:

There is nothing in our ‘existence’ that is good, in a positive sense, or as really outlined from evil. If to forgive be good in times of peace, it is evil in wartime.... Good in our experience is continuous with, or is only another aspect of evil.

The idea of continuity can also be extended to spirituality — breaking down the ego, merging with the universe, a feeling of oneness with the whole. Continuity can be seen as a religious idea, a religious feeling.

One of Fort’s main goals is to puncture the pride of science. He says that the scientists of his time tried to reverse the teachings of religion:

It is very easy to see that most of the theoretic science of the 19th century was only a relation of reaction against theologic dogma, and has no more to do with Truth than has a wave that bounds back from a shore.

Fort argues that scientists are “hypnotized” by their dogmas, just as religious believers were hypnotized:

That theological pronouncements are as much open to doubt as ever they were, but that, by a hypnotizing process, they became dominant over the majority of minds in their era: That, in a succeeding era, the laws, dogmas, formulas, principles, of materialistic science never were proved... but that the leading minds of their era of dominance were hypnotized into more or less firmly believing them.

Like religion, science closes its eyes to data that undermines its dogmas:

I of course know of no positive difference between Science and Christian Science — and the attitude of both toward the unwelcome is the same — “it does not exist.”

Fort speaks of “due care in selection, and disregard for everything else, or the scientific and theological method.” Data that don’t fit into the prevailing system are ignored, ostracized, damned.

There is no pure science, Fort argues, just as there’s no pure art: “Scientists and their dream of ‘pure science.’ Artists and their dream of ‘art for art’s sake.’”6

Fort argues for Continuity — that is, he argues against independent existence. He says that, for many years, scientists clung to the idea that the earth was independent. If a rock fell to earth from space, scientists insisted that the rock was on the earth already, in that area, or it was swept up from one place on the earth, and dropped in another.

In 1772, a committee, of whom Lavoisier was a member, was appointed by the French Academy, to investigate a report that a stone had fallen from the sky at Luce, France. Of all attempts at positiveness, in its aspect of isolation, I don’t know of anything that has been fought harder for than the notion of this earth’s unrelatedness.... Lavoisier’s analysis “absolutely proved” that this stone had not fallen: that it had been struck by lightning.

One may have the knowledge of a Lavoisier, and still not be able to analyze, not be able even to see, except conformably with the hypnoses, or the conventional reactions against hypnoses, of one’s era.7

Fort is obsessed with falling objects, and thinks nothing of discussing this topic for hundreds of pages. He believes that some falling objects have dropped from inter-planetary space-ships. He speaks of

an overhead traffic in commodities similar to our own commodities carried over this earth’s oceans.... Cargoes of food supplies.... If there be, plying back and forth from Jupiter and Mars and Venus, super-constructions that are sometimes wrecked, we think of fuel as well as cargoes.

He even thinks that live animals can drop to earth from outer space: “If hosts of living frogs have come here — from somewhere else — every living thing upon this earth may, ancestrally, have come from — somewhere else.”8

Just as we can build arguments against discrete “things,” so too we can build arguments against discrete events. Take World War II, for example. We can say it started on September 1, 1939, with Hitler’s invasion of Poland — a discrete event, with a precise beginning. But we can also argue that World War II started earlier — with Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland, or with Japan’s campaign in China, or with the Spanish Civil War. When we look closely at an event, its boundaries become less distinct, it starts to merge into other events, we end up with Continuity.

Perhaps things and events are mental constructs, designed to facilitate speech and communication. Heisenberg said that classical physics doesn’t apply to quantum experiments, but we still need to use the language of classical physics to facilitate communication. We need “things” and “events” for the sake of communication, though we may doubt whether they really exist.

3. Shame, Guilt

It’s often said that the Chinese are concerned with “losing face,” with being shamed in front of others. “But isn’t this true of everyone, not just the Chinese?” In the West, Christianity repressed the unconscious, strengthened the super-ego, and kindled war between the conscience and the body. “If thy right eye offend thee,” Jesus tells us, “pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” Christianity put one part of human nature at war with another part; it created interior spaces, it fostered introspection, it promoted the feeling of guilt. The feeling of guilt may be stronger in the West than in China, while the feeling of shame (the fear of “losing face”) may be stronger in China. The feeling of shame, in China, is like a king who rules alone, while in the West, the feeling of shame shares power with guilt.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Introduction by F.S.C. Northrop to Physics and Philosophy, by Werner Heisenberg, pp. 3-4, New York, Harper, 1958.

Schopenhauer said, “As a rule, knowledge exists earlier than its proofs.”(The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 2, Ch. 10) Here I go again, gathering quotes to support my ideas! back

2. Man and Crisis, Ch. 1. Ortega understood that this was the usual genesis of big ideas in the sciences as well as the humanities — theory first, then facts.

What about Darwin? Did he take an inductive approach, or did he start with a hypothesis, and then gather facts to support it? Richard Dawkins says that, in Darwin’s time, “scientists were supposed to proceed by pure induction, letting facts mount up and speak for themselves to a mind unbiased by theory. In fact, as Michael Ghiselin showed in his excellent The Triumph of the Darwinian Method, Darwin, like any good scientist, worked by dreaming up hypotheses and then testing them against the facts, not only in the case of the theory of natural selection itself, but in all his major works.”(see Dawkins’ Introduction to Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle) back

3. Fort: “Darwinism of course was never proved: The fittest survive. What is meant by the fittest? Not the strongest; not the cleverest — Weakness and stupidity everywhere survive. There is no way of determining fitness except in that a thing does survive. ‘Fitness,’ then, is only another name for ‘survival.’ Darwinism: That survivors survive.” back
4. See G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, Preface, pp. viii, ix back
5. F. Hemmings, Scribner Writers Series back
6. Nietzsche also scoffed at the notion of pure science, and the notion of “art for art’s sake” (art pour l’art). Nietzsche insisted that art is connected to life, it’s a “stimulus to life.” See, for example, Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man,” #24 back
7. Fort’s prose is sometimes lively:
“To many minds there’s rest and there’s satisfaction in that expression ‘absolutely identified.’ Absoluteness, or the illusion of it — the universal quest. If chemists have identified substances that have fallen in Europe as sand from African deserts, swept up in African whirlwinds, that’s assuasive to all the irritations that occur to those cloistered minds that must repose in the concept of a snug, isolated, little world, free from contact with cosmic wickednesses, safe from stellar guile, undisturbed by inter-planetary prowlings and invasions. The only trouble is that a chemist’s analysis, which seems so final and authoritative to some minds, is no more nearly absolute than is identification by a child or description by an imbecile.” back
8. In an earlier issue, we discussed how many renowned philosophers believed that other planets were inhabited.

Fort makes an interesting point about logic: “The logicians feel that agreement of diverse data constitute greater convincingness, or strength, than that of mere parallel instances.” When I defend an idea like Connections, I use arguments from a variety of sources — primitive magic, Eastern philosophy, quantum physics, Shakespeare’s plays, etc.

Fort talks about returning to abandoned theories: “By heresy, or progress, I mean, very largely, a return, though with many modifications, to the superstitions of the past.” Lichtenberg made a similar point: “There is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again. Still to believe that the moon affects the plants reveals stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again is a sign of philosophy and reflection.” back