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Everybody! Everybody! Part Two: Rod Dreher

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Good people, when The New Yorker profiles a guy who makes a case for Johnsonville, aka Branch Davidian North, aka JOB’s Driftless Dreamland, shouldn’t we take note and discuss?

Dreher is one of the reasons I sometimes wish I could stop by the Walker Percy Weekend. And oh look, it gets a mention in the piece:

One of Dreher’s favorite writers is Walker Percy, whose novel “The Moviegoer” often refers to a fictionalized version of West Feliciana parish, where St. Francisville is situated. (Every year, Dreher hosts a Walker Percy Weekend, combining lectures from literary scholars with crawfish, bourbon, and beer.) Binx Bolling, the book’s protagonist, is a young stockbroker who finds himself on “the search”—the search being “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the every-dayness of his own life.” Binx explains, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

San Diego in the news.


Not my town, but the original San Diego – San Diego de Alcala. Or rather, his corpse. And a praying robot made in his image. A little something for anyone who has ever felt the least bit automatic during recitation of the rosary.

Two Articles on Mind and Brain

Recently a number of related items have popped up, almost at random, that are somewhat related to Rufus’ Field Notes. The first two were articles sent to me by my Uncle: one by Michael S. A. Graziano, a professor of neuroscience at Princeton and the author of the (truly excellent) novel, Love Song of Monkey. In the article, Graziano writes:

[What] is the relationship between our minds and the physical world? Here, we don’t have a settled answer. We know something about the body and brain, but what about the subjective life inside? Consider that a computer, if hooked up to a camera, can process information about the wavelength of light and determine that grass is green. But we humans also experience the greenness. We have an awareness of information we process. What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves?

Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster. I believe a major change in our perspective on consciousness may be necessary, a shift from a credulous and egocentric viewpoint to a skeptical and slightly disconcerting one: namely, that we don’t actually have inner feelings in the way most of us think we do.

The entire article is worth reading, as are Graziano’s books God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World and Consciousness and the Social Brain (probably—I’m guessing on this one, as I haven’t actually read this one yet). In the article and the first book Graziano makes his case for an account of the mind that reckons it in entirely materialist terms. Philosophically this is called eliminative materialism, and while the science is certainly new, the big idea has been around at least since Democritus and Leucippus.

I won’t quote the entire article by Graziano, but I will quote my response to my Uncle:

In ​one of​​ ​his books about neuroscience, he has proposed a theory of consciousness that is intriguing—namely, that consciousness evolved when hominids took their already highly developed social skills (think​ ​of ​monkeys grooming each other, or chattering on the brink of speech) and as individuals then turned these skills “inward”. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong, but it’s an interesting theory.

He doesn’t go into that in the article, but I find that more compelling than his idea about brain-as-information-processing machine. An idea that is pretty worn out, it seems to me, as people have been making that analogy for decades now. It seems to me that Graziano has simply taken the analogy seriously, which is to say he takes the computer as a model for the brain/mind, when of course it is the brain/mind ​(or some of its properties, such as the ability to perform mathematical computations) ​that has historically been a model for the computer.

​This unfortunately seems to me an example of the “cartoonish reconstruction of attention” of which he speaks.​ Not that I think he’s wrong about there being cartoonish awareness, but aren’t some instances of awareness more accurate (less cartoonish) than others?

While Graziano is an excellent novelist and, as near as I can tell, an excellent scientist, in this article ​he makes statements that are half-truths at best.

For example, he writes that Copernicus showed us that “we’re a speck in a large space”, ​and of course this is true as far as it goes, but what of the fact that in that large space, ours is the only planet that supports any kind of life, let alone intelligent life? Of course we may find that we are not alone in the universe, but then what would that mean, exactly? Our planet wouldn’t be unique, strictly speaking, but would that mean that our planet and planet #2 were really less marvelous for supporting life? Of course not, and I doubt Graziano would even claim that. So what exactly is he arguing against? The existence of God? Why?

​Likewise for his second great scientific insight, that “we’re a twig on the tree of evolution”. Just another twig? I doubt Graziano really believes this​. One twig on a tree is much like any other twig, which really isn’t all that different from bigger limbs or even a tree trunk or a tree’s roots. But Graziano is one of the only kind of primate to study other primates. It may turn out that Graziano and the rest of the human race evolve into beings that are as different from us as we are from non-rational animals, or as animals are from vegetable life, or as vegetable life is from inorganic matter, but this remains to be seen. But to say that the most complex organism produced yet by evolution is just another twig strikes me as betrayal of Darwin’s theory rather than a supporting analogy.

Like the philosophers Dennet and Churchland he refers to, Graziano’s philosophy of mind seems to be eliminativist materialism, which seems to me to be ultimately incoherent. Going back to Graziano’s analogy, he’s eliminated any idea of truth except whatever he calls “science”, which seems to me to postpone any and all truth to the claims of some future science. How can he claim that “wavelength is a real, physical phenomenon; color is the brain’s approximate, slightly incorrect model of it​” without relying on “awareness”? How does he know that one “complex bundle of information” is a caricature and another is not?

We know that some things are true and some things are not true, and we know this now. Certainly it is very difficult to prove that anything is true, but somehow that doesn’t stop us from knowing some things are true (not just believing some things are true). Science comes from the Latin “scire”, to know, and ought to include ways of knowing other than mathematics and reasoning with tools. It ought to include reasoning in such areas of philosophy as metaphysics, since arguments for the truth are always built on assumptions of some kind or another, and proponents of any argument need to be able to examine their assumptions.

The other article my Uncle sent to me is by Lawrence Berger, Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters, itself a response to the Graziano article linked above. Berger begins:

A cognitive scientist and a German philosopher walk into the woods and come upon a tree in bloom: What does each one see? And why does it matter?

While that may sound like the set-up to a joke making the rounds at a philosophy conference, I pose it here sincerely, as a way to explore the implications of two distinct strains of thought — that of cognitive science and that of phenomenology, in particular, the thought of Martin Heidegger, who offers a most compelling vision of the ultimate significance of our being here, and what it means to be fully human.

In the article, Berger offers a pretty good criticism of the Cartesian view of matter (“The prevailing view is that the universe consists of discrete entities that are ultimately related by physical laws”) and proposes instead that “Heidegger, on the other hand, offers a holistic view of all that is. We belong here together with the trees and the stones, for we are made manifest together. Rather than being discrete entities, the relation comes first, and the extent to which we are related matters for what we and the stone ultimately are.”

I think this is fine as far as it goes, but I’m not so sure Berger or Heidegger get to what we and the stone ultimately are, if only because I don’t think the story ends with just we and the stone.

As I wrote to my uncle:

I’m not sure the difficulty with Heidegger is your problem alone. I think he (and his explicator Berger) leave some things out, without being as clear as Graziano. For example, it seems obvious that it’s easier to talk to somebody who is actually listening, but isn’t clear how “the same general principle applies to a purely physical object such as a stone,” or exactly how “the manner in which such an object is made manifest can be affected by the quality of my presence.” Unless he means something vacuous like my throwing it means that it will move, or (maybe a little less vacuous) that I can use it along with other stones to build a wall.

And Heidegger is notoriously murky, not just in the way he expresses things, but in what he is trying to express. For example, which is “more primordial”: being or time? What is the difference between some thing and the being of some thing? What is the difference between the being of some thing and the being of all things?

It isn’t clear to me that Heidegger makes any headway in answering these questions. The questions themselves have become interesting to me, but I’m not sure there are answers to these questions, or that there is even a way to answer these questions.”

Unless we go back into the history of philosophy and find out why Heidegger formulated these questions in the way he did, and if perhaps that might shed light on why the questions have meaning as ultimate questions, though perhaps unanswerable, or if rather they lead to a philosophical cul-de-sac.

I suspect the latter, but the place to go is Reduction and Givenness by Jean-Luc Marion, who reveals how much Heidegger’s ontological investigation owe to his teacher Husserl’s phenomenological investigations.

Monkey marginalia.

Happy All Souls Day from Covington

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Pictured, clockwise from upper left: Matthew, Deirdre, Bunt, Walker

A Visit to Walker Percy’s Grave


Still Lost in the Cosmos conference panelists Jonathan, Rachel, and Matthew at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.



Ecce Quam Bonum, by Daniel Mitsui

Ecce Quam Bonum, by Daniel Mitsui
(from Psalm 133)

The gifted and industrious artist Daniel Mitsui, a great favorite here at Korrektiv, has released the text (and illustrations) of a lecture he delivered earlier this month. The subject: Catholic religious art, and Mitsui’s approach to it as student and draftsman. This presentation is thought-provoking, edifying, and a pleasure to read. Here’s a taste, from near the conclusion:

You have undoubtedly seen [medieval ‘drolleries’] in the margins of illuminated manuscripts: frolicking monkeys, marauding woodwoses, flirting peasants, anthropomorphized pigs playing bagpipes, funny monsters composed of various parts of men, birds, beasts and reptiles[…]. This grotesque, romantic, comical element is not limited to manuscript margins; it is found in almost every medium of medieval sacred art. […]

This same element can be encountered in the worship of the medieval Church: a Festival of the Donkey honored the beast that bore the Blessed Virgin on the Flight into Egypt; during the Mass, certain responses were brayed rather than chanted. […] Medieval sculptors and engineers introduced automation and puppetry into the church […]. [An] example is the Boxley Rood of Grace, a crucifix whose Christ moved his arms and eyes and mouth by means of wires operated by a hidden puppeteer. For all that the Middle Ages can truly be described as a time of liturgical solemnity, monastic discipline, personal piety, scholastic disputation, crusading zeal and fleshly mortification, the faithful of those ages never lost their sense of humor or their spirit of romance.

I tend to keep the company of other traditional Catholics, and their reactions when hearing about these practices diverge; some think they are wonderful. Others are horrified, and see in them only a precedent for current liturgical abuse and artistic gimmickry. To my mind, they are very different.

To learn why Mitsui thinks they are different — and to help yourself to much more food for thought — click here for the lecture.

[Lecture link via Mr Mitsui’s April 2013 newsletter, which is packed with art, including a commission for the American College of Surgeons; a preview of a forthcoming set of Stations of the Cross; and the Ecce Quam Bonum that illustrates this post.]

[For Korrektiv‘s previous coverage of medieval drolleries, click here.]

Site of next Korrektiv retreat located.

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New Clairvaux in Northern California. I don’t know from Cistercians, but they follow St. Benedict’s rule, so they can’t be all bad. Plus, they just rebuilt their chapter house – the one that William Randolph Hearst dismantled in Spain and hauled over to the States. Read all about it here. Plus: vineyards! Ales!

The Mad Monk

Up from the comments: Mrs. Darwin alerts us to this article on Dom Gregory de Wit.

I love the line from his mentor: ““You will not make great things but you will make beautiful things.”

In other news, The Anchoress once used the St. Brigid’s stations on her blog.