The Eleventh Commandment



I ‘d had the idea of this essay before the Aurora, Colorado, shooting. But that shooting makes it seem even more immediately necessary for someone to float the idea, regardless of his or her personal moral stature. I imagine that a lot of people act on the principle intuitively, but perhaps it should be stated as clearly and plainly and absolutely as possible.

The effort is to enunciate a principle that all can agree on in good faith, whether they are followers of a distinct creed or complete nonbelievers.

The principle is this: No matter what your spiritual convictions—whether you associate yourself with an organized religious group, whether you are individually religious but not keen on institutionalized creeds, whether you are agnostic, or whether you are atheist—you agree that no belief, none whatsoever, justifies killing or even injuring another human, or destroying anything beautiful (as a man, thinking he was Jesus, once took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta). If you think God or the nature of existence is commanding you to kill or destroy, you are wrong. Just flat wrong.

That’s it. No matter what you fear or feel, your convictions do not justify damage to another human or to the beautiful.

There are a number of facile arguments people use to get around the principle, and those arguments should be addressed.

By “beautiful” I do not mean merely what you yourself argue is beautiful. I mean what a great many people consider beautiful. I am not much moved by Bach, though many lovers of music are (and many physicists and mathematicians especially. Whether this is a flaw in my own appreciation or not, I have no right to attack his music. (Actually, I never would attack it, since I mildly enjoy it, am just not transported by it, except to memories of Vacation Bible School in Southern Baptist Churches. But even if I were to develop a conviction that I was a fated actor and that Bach was the devil, I would have no right to attack it. That’s my point.) With regard to the concept of “the beautiful,” some might argue that the blown-apart body of a perceived enemy is “beautiful,” but that’s pretty obviously self-serving, and is not what I’m talking about at all.

And by damage, I do not mean putative or theoretical or syntactical damage. Argue as meanly as you wish to, and live with how you are seen as a result. Words don’t count, no matter how vicious they are. (I’m speaking of strictly of physical damage. Of course words can do terrible damage, and I’m not excusing abusive or dangerous or misleading speech. I’m just saying that it’s impossible to devise an absolute code of conduct for argument which will not eventually prove to be as harmful as the damage done by the nasty words themselves. This is why, in my opinion, the writers of the Constitution of the United States described free speech as a right, and did not try to circumscribe that right with law. We must each, on our own responsibility, decide what sort of language we will allow ourselves.)

There are also plenty of situations in which it might be argued that this principle does not hold. I will not discuss war, in which the whole point is the slaughtering of other humans and the destruction of what they hold dear. I will not discuss it, in spite of my own horror at war, because I don’t want the issue to be muddied with sophistical debate., the pretense that the existence of war implies that how we treat our fellows does not matter. I will not discuss the eating of meat, although I feel strongly that those humans who are capable of empathy for other humans are much more likely to feel empathy for other creatures, and that to damage any living creature or the Earth itself is wrong. I eat meat myself. I’m not saying I ought to. I’m just describing my own actual behavior.

It’s my sense that if we could agree, perhaps just in civilian life, and just with regard to humans, that violent and damaging behavior is never permissible, we would do ourselves a great deal of good.

We could also help soothe the fury-ravaged minds among us if we would simply adopt this practice, adopt it on the level of truth and commandment.

No exceptions.

It is not permissible to argue that other humans are trying to infringe on your rights or destroy your government and that therefore you must take pre-emptive action, that you must defend yourself by killing others.

No. We must agree that such arguments are not sane.

If you are under direct and lethal physical threat from another, you may of course defend yourself as necessary, and keep your honor.  I’m not talking about a law.  I’m talking about a species-wide way of looking at things.  Only by accepting such refusal to cause harm as a norm of behavior will we survive.

That’s the key. I call it a commandment, by the way, only by analogy with the Ten Commandments. Actually the idea has no force unless we accept it as individuals. It isn’t really a commandment, then, but in the word I have already been using, a principle.

We must refuse to engage in supersophistical theoretical dilemmas, from pretending that the imagined dilemmas of philosophy can excuse the actual behavior of individuals. The Joker is not acceptable. The fact that he thinks he is exemplifying philosophy with his murders is not proof that our moral underpinnings are false, but proof that he is wrong.

For a long time, in our culture, some of our artists and writers and philosophers have allowed themselves to imagine the horrible as defensible, under the illusion that they are exploring the profound paradox of morality.

It is true that artists and writers and philosophers (and preachers) cannot and should not be barred from an open look at horrible facts.

But really that excuse applies to very few works. Are we really arguing that our best-selling fiction, every single book of it, is conducting a profound investigation into the depths of human nature? Isn’t it obvious that the violence in our movies and stories and television is there almost entirely for entertainment value, that it vaunts itself as serious stuff merely as an excuse?

Dexter is not just like us. He’s wrong.

So the high school chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad shows what terrible deeds any of us are capable of. So? Is that the whole of the effect we receive? Are we not actually identifying with him, enjoying the frisson?

Our “detective stories” have become bloodier and bloodier. The detective stories I read, the Reacher novels and the Prey novels among them (I like the Letter from the Roman Alphabet Is X books a lot, too) have become hardly more than flimsily justified explosions of gunplay, the reader enjoying a momentary release of apparently justified blood-lust: These hard men are only being so murderous because we need them to, because there are terrible people out there, and those terrible people deserve killing. That excuse is endemic.

I love the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels, a sort of fiction it’s no longer possible to find. I need to read what I used to call “mysteries.” (They’ve all turned into gunfests now.) It may be a poor excuse, but I would not read the bloodier stuff if there were any sufficiently intelligent writing of another sort.

Surely it’s obvious that in a story an author can arrange cause and effect any way he or she wishes to, and thereby appear to “prove” his or her case? Oh the hero is so violent because he or she is “haunted.” Doesn’t matter by what. Drink or the murder of someone beloved or war. Oh, well, then, that’s okay.

The question is not how things go in stories, but how we want them to go in life.

“Red Mist” has become such a joke that the villain’s son in Kick-Ass adopts it for a name when he pretends to be a super-hero. It seems to me many think to prove how much sturdier their perceptions of reality are, how tough they are, by laughing about the corrupt and the horrible. I keep coming back to our artists and writers and philosophers, who seem to be outdoing each other in how far they will go, how much more and how much nastier slaughter they can portray.

Sort of like an aesthetic arms race, and with the same inevitable spiral to unbearable excess and destruction as its ultimate result.

Who do you think you’re proving things to? Do you not know who you are and what you stand for? Do you really think, somewhere, on some level, that by creating such violent characters and giving them excuses, you are partaking of the “toughness” you portray? Do you think we readers imagine you as the hero?


There is a famous Batman story in which a “good” guy does one totally evil thing, assassinates Batman with a long-distance rifle, and then goes back to live his “good” life. The point, I think, is that our labels, “good” and “bad,” are arbitrary. (And that the author is a deep thinker?)

In actual life, however, there are no such characters. The kind of being who can commit such murder is not the kind who can otherwise live an entirely blameless life. It will not happen. The assumption is specious, and can occur only within the bounds of a narrative.

It has become common to put on philosophical airs, to imply that you are a serious and unconventional thinker by embracing wholesale brutality. It has become fashionable. As with happens with most philosophy, the attitude has percolated gradually through the awarenesses of even those among us who are least capable of or least fit for philosophy.

Yes, morality is provisional. Nothing in nature demands it. That does not make it a less useful way of looking at things. It is a provision we make in order to have civilization, in order to benefit each other.

Since morality is provisional, we must be very careful what we represent to ourselves as acceptable behavior. We say what goes into it and what does not.

My suggestion is that as many of us as are capable adopt what I am referring to (though I am unlikely to be its initiator, am merely attempting to be one of its conduits) as the eleventh commandment.

It isn’t covered by the already existing commandment not to kill. That has gotten tangled in our concepts of war, and everyone makes far too many exceptions to it in their personal behavior. It’s also identified very strongly with a single type of religious behavior, which makes it very difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept. They may not reject the idea, but they do reject the source, and so the idea comes across as truism, preachiness, cliche. It’s implied that you must accept the system that created the commandment if you accept the tenet.

What I’m proposing is a way to limit the damage done by murderous beliefs, whether philosophical or the result of self-absorbtion (not that philosophers are immune to self-absorption). We must say, Such behaviors are not acceptable. Not for ourselves, not for others. For individuals, the “commandment” is a way for a mind to test the quality of its belief and thought. If the belief and thought urge to killing or damage, they are wrong. It’s that simple. No conviction, no matter how intense, is justified if it urges damage to another human or to the beautiful.

The “eleventh commandment” doesn’t address thorny questions like what level of force the police may use in what situations. In such matters, we are dependent on our laws, on the justice of our system. But most of us are not police officers, and do not want to be. Why pretend that our moral behavior depends on an impossible general answer to such specialized questions?

No one is trying to regulate thought or art. I’m just suggesting an individual standard that we may each use to judge our own notions. A standard that’s absolute, but absolutely voluntary.

No matter how angry you are, how frustrated, how passionate, or how convinced you are that you are in the right, If you kill or injure other humans, or attack the beautiful, you are, quite simply, wrong.



A Letter to the Rulers of the World

(This essay appears in my book, Practicing Zen without a License, but I decided it needed exposure here.

A meme is an idea, but an idea with a difference.

We normally think of ideas as creations of individual minds. Some modern thinkers have engaged in a viewpoint shift (ok, paradigm shift, if you insist on the word) in order to see if there are productive results. They see ideas as independently-existing entities, and our minds as the cultures in which these ideas grow. They call such ideas memes, by which they mean to imply a genetic quality to the propagation of ideas. That is, there are ideas which can reproduce. These ideas have built-in structures to ensure their survival and propagation, much like viruses or other invading organisms.

It is not necessary to demonstrate whether or not memes “actually” exist. It is sufficiently informative to assume their existence, and see whether this method of analysis yields good results.

It develops that the meme approach is very fruitful. Nothing about it tells us whether a given meme is beneficial or harmful, but once you begin to look at an idea in this fashion, you remove all its emotional coloration, and you begin to be able to see the functional structure of the idea.

Any idea may be viewed as a meme.

How do you stop a bad meme? This question occurred to me while I was imagining myself the ruler of the world. My ministers came to me and described the intolerable situation with a certain bloody religious sect. This sect had instituted cruel punishments for trivial things, including widespread capital punishment. This sect felt itself persecuted, though the leaders of the sect were among the richest people on the earth, and though their internal politics swayed all the world. This religious sect fostered a murderous fervor on behalf its believers and directed against all those who did not believe. Clearly this sect was a cancerous meme.

(Note: the foregoing was written before 9/11, and is intended to describe what I perceive as a universal human condition, not any one group.)

As ruler of the world, you understand, I had responsibility not primarily to individuals, but primarily to the health and well-being of the species, and only secondarily to individuals and groups of individuals. It is plausible to imagine but not possible to demonstrate that the greatest possible health for the species entails the greatest possible health for each contributing member in most conditions. (Questions of absolute survival may overrule this attitude in moments of crisis, as when the mountaineer sawed off his own arm.)

As ruler of the world I imagined saying, Kill all the males who will not renounce. I was not being Old Testament, I was minimizing the damage. This particular meme was much more virulent in males because it appeared at first to reward their systems preferentially. I thought I could let the women live, and those males who would renounce. That way I would not be obliterating a race. I would be like the surgeon removing no more of the organ than I had to in order to be reasonably sure of having gotten all the cancer.

But we all know that if I had really been ruler of the world, I would have said no such thing, I could have said no such thing.

Why? Because I’m a nice guy.

No, seriously folks, because we can’t be sure it works that way. We can’t prove that the health of the species entails the health of its individuals, but we can’t disprove it either. It might actually work that way.

And since it might, we can’t take any chances.

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide, even partial genocide such as I in my benevolence would have imposed.

You got that?

We can’t find a moral justification for genocide.

Which is to say war.

There isn’t one.

The only conceivable moral justification for imposing harm on individuals is to foster the well-being of the species, or of something greater than the species but which includes the species, such as the many-branched and highly-contradictory Will of God. Most meme-gone-cancerous beliefs however include just such a moral justification. It would have been ironic. As ruler of the world, I would have been engaging in the same behavior as the religion I sought to stamp out. The meme would have conquered me.

That’s a hell of a strategy for survival–to make death and propagation identical. Burst the cell wall of the bad-meme belief in order to kill it and you spray genetic copies all over the place.

It’s a good thing there are no rulers of the world. For our species, that would be like having a one-celled brain.

So how do you stop a bad-meme belief (a BMB if you will)?

Friends and neighbors, you laugh it out of court. You just refuse to take it seriously. And why not? Nobody says you have to take it seriously. Do you take nuclear physics seriously? Ok, I saw the hand over there in the third row, but the rest of you, you see what I mean. Nuclear physics can turn you to vapor in a millisecond, but you don’t take it seriously. So who says you have to take a BMB seriously? Oh it can make you roast in hell forever. Oh really?

You let the professors of the bad meme prattle on, but you don’t listen long. You excuse yourself politely because you have some interesting things to think about. You invite them to the parties, but you know they won’t feel easy, they’ll be self-conscious and defensive and mean if they get drunk.

In other words, you don’t shut them out, quarantine them. They do that to themselves. They have special products only the faithful can use, special observances that “prove” their faith, usually by means of spectacular oddity or uselessness or actual difficulty. Why else would somebody do this?

You may feel pity and you may try to help, but in essence you’re letting the disease run its course, knowing that in the long run it weakens those who have it and that eventually the species will develop resistance and throw it off.

You can do all this because you’ve got a resistance to the bad meme. A natural resistance. Perhaps we are beginning to develop workable inoculations as well.  Education appears to help, at least when it contains some information on how to think for yourself.  Cleansing the individual in a bath of love has shown some good results.   Encouraging the physical well-being of the individual, ditto.  None of these methods are sufficient in themselves, and the difficulty of application has so far interfered with treatment for a good many people.

We all know that as a matter of practical fact, we do, each of us, all the time, make decisions that balance the well-being of the species against the well-being of the individual. Each of us as rulers of the world.

We continue to save lives with antibiotics even though we know that we are breeding stronger disease organisms and, by failing to let natural selection take its course, weakening the resistance of our gene pool to those diseases.

We continue to take dangerous people out of circulation by means of prison or execution. It isn’t a very good solution, and our methods of evaluating danger are all screwed up, but we haven’t figured out anything better yet.

And so on.

Fine, as a matter of practical fact. What else can we do? But not fine as a religion, gussied up with orthodoxies and threats. That’s like letting the knife decide what to cut. BMBs exist, and we need to quell them.

I suppose there’s one other question we ought to deal with.

How do you tell a bad-meme-belief? Aren’t all beliefs equally valid in the scheme of things? Oh come on, folks.

Use your brains.

Addendum: On further reflection, I would say that all BMBs contain hooks–structures that attempt to damage the host if that person attempts to remove the bad idea. Usually the hook is in the form of a prohibition–you cannot question the the idea itself, usually on pain of being sentenced to hell, frequently on pain of being ostracized by other holders, and not infrequently on pain of mental trouble, since the idea has invaded your self-esteem and restructured it as cancer cells organize a blood delivery system within your body.

The simple rule, then: All bad memes have hooks.




This was written some time ago, in the election of 2008.  I’m trying to get back to this blog, which I have been neglecting.

No doubt because I’m a writer, I first noticed the trend on book jackets.  Suddenly every flyweight scribbler who showed the least flash of talent was being hailed as a “genius.”  Well, no.

Geniuses are rare. The very root of the word implies someone of extraordinary and inexplicable abilities, someone who can do what no one else is capable of. Geniuses are people like Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, Renoir, Einstein, maybe Alan Moore. They seldom occur as often once a century. Quick wit and a modest flair are estimable, but do not a genius make.

Maybe it began as a marketing ploy. Reassure the customer that the item in question is not merely a flashy expo of the latest fashions, but a work of enduring genius, and maybe you have the next summer blockbuster on hand.

However it began, the style percolated rapidly through all literary strata. Contemporary poetry has become the most solipsistic and monumentally boring enterprise possible to a wordsmith, read by none and practiced by thousands, but if you believe the blurbs (akin to believing Goldman/Sachs on finance or HCA on health care), these poets are, each and every one, geniuses.

The next inflated term I noticed was “hero.” Suddenly all you had to do to be a hero was enlist in the military. Of course there are heroes in the military, as there are in almost every human endeavor, but surely even the most hawkish of generals will concede that not every enlistee is heroic?

My standards for heroism are perhaps less stringent than my standards for genius. Heroism is attainable for almost all of us, whereas genius shows up capriciously. It is, in a sense, unfair. It cannot be acquired by means of any amount of earnest effort or any degree of sacrifice. (Though it may certainly be developed to highest effect or shamefully wasted.)

But my standards are nevertheless stringent. The hero, according to Joseph Campbell, ventures into unexplored territory and brings back something of value to the tribe, an idea or freedom from the dragon’s depredations, usually at great personal cost, always by means of enduring forbidding difficulties. Often the tribe initially disdains the hero’s achievement, only later realizing how magnificent the gift has proven to be. Martin Luther King, for example, was a hero.

At first I thought this degraded usage was confined to home-town newspapers, boosterish forums eager to foster local pride in the way the pep squad pumps up the high school for the big game. Every returning enlistee, no matter whether he or she had spent his or her enlistment stateside in the motor pool or as a mess hall cook, was hailed automatically as a “hero.”

(I do not look down on enlisted service of any sort, incidentally. But isn’t this a bit much? No action required, much less courage under fire.)

Later I began to see it everywhere, in wide-circulation papers, on television, on the internet. “The troops” were “heroes,” simply by virtue of wearing the uniform. No doubt there have been many brave soldiers in our (necessary and unnecessary) wars but surely there have been as many thieves, cowards, bullies, and butt-lazy jerkwads as well. Are they all “heroes?”

Do you see the common thread? Achievement has been replaced by the label, in the way that “organic” foods may contain corn syrup, in the way that no one posts a personal romantic ad who is not “sexy,” “creative,” and a lover of long thoughtful walks by the ocean.

The next inflated term I noticed was “warrior.” Perhaps because I read too many graphic novels, I attribute the term’s current popularity to Frank Miller. The Nietszche of the comics, he is to them as Harlan Ellison was to science fiction. (I’m strongly against cockfighting but might pay money to watch Miller and Ellison in a pit together.) His Dark Knight shrugs off heart attacks and various broken or dislocated limbs by means of sheer willpower, is more muscle-bound than Arnold but capable of incredible acrobatic feats even at the age of fifty, and crashes his speedster in flames but wins the race anyhow.

My son-in-law and I tried to watch 300 on video the other day. We were prepared for death and mayhem and a ceaseless display of sixpacks (apparently no male in Sparta ever wore a shirt) but the constant flatulent oratory defeated us. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Athens, that city of boy-lovers, as Leonidas snidely refers to them, whip the Spartans’ butts a few times? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Sparta more about Conquest than Freedom?)

Whoever originated the usage, it’s everywhere now. I don’t know whether the burgeoning of the martial arts in the U. S. is cause or symptom, but I do know that samurai have become the contemporary models of perfect warriors. The myth-making may be seen at its most preposterous extreme in the two Kill Bill movies (which could have been one if the dialogue hadn’t been so comically portentous and slow). I enjoy Ken Chi as much as the next fellow, but surely the disaffected samurai are our latter-day equivalents to the lone horseman, incredibly quick on the draw, who rides into a lawless Western town, and, though he despises gunplay, shoots all the bad guys dead?

Let’s take a look at those samurai. Warriors they were indeed, superbly trained in swordplay, taught to eliminate fear from their reactions. But as models of human behavior? The very same virtues that made them fearsome made them morally neutral. They fought for whichever noble they served. If we are to believe the romance of the samurai (which I’m no more inclined to do than I am to see Billy the Kid as the embodiment of the noble gunslinger), their code was the code of honor. Self-described warriors are always keen on “honor.”

The samurai, in essence, transformed themselves into weapons. The weapon may be beautiful, the weapon is certainly deadly, but the weapon has no conscience. The “honor” of the warrior is like the curving gleam on a samurai sword. Everything depends on the character of the person swinging it.

The romance of the warrior is that the true warrior is invulnerable. Even a brief glance at history shows this to be total fallacy at best and more probably total lunacy. In a video game you may trounce all the bad guys (unless you have chosen to play the bad guy). If you get “killed” while you’re learning, you can resurrect the character and try again.

It ah, you know, it doesn’t work that way in real life. I would guess that at a minimum a hundred wannabes must die for every surviving true warrior. Somehow I don’t really like those odds.

Okay, fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality, and most people can tell the difference. It wouldn’t matter except for the rhetoric. Far too many personal and policy decisions treat this “warrior” nonsense as genuine thought. We have the spectacle of self-described “warriors” who instigate wars though they themselves fled from any possibility of exposing themselves to battle.

Again, perhaps because I am a writer, I locate the common flaw in the inflation and degradation of the language. Quite a few good people have referred to Orwell’s warnings in this matter, and rightly so. The basic principle is less seldom mentioned: The proper function of language is communication. We use it to convey information from mind to mind.

The fine and underappreciated poet James Whitehead had a character in one of his poems declare, “The end of style for honest men is clarity.” (By way of full disclosure, Whitehead would caution that the man on whom the character was based wound up in a mental institution.)

Dissimulation is a perversion, not a function. In the same way that an invading micro-organism will destroy the health of its host, evasion and deceit destroy language. Dishonesty has a characteric and unmistakable sound, and doesn’t take much training to recognize. Hemingway, himself quite a purveyor of bovine ordure, famously stated the necessity for having a good bullshit detector. Anyone who listened to one of Nixon’s campaign speeches knew without a doubt, long before he swore to the contrary, and regardless of whatever arguable virtues he may have possessed, that he was a crook.

When a dissembling politician (I will entertain the notion there are other kinds) emits clouds of obfuscation and double-speak, phrases lose syntactical connection, grammars go haywire, and words lose their meaning.

How could it be otherwise? The speaker does not respect the language, but views it as merely a tool to further his or her own devices. If you do not respect the instrument, you are unlikely to master it.

There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, as if the choice were between education and honor. I remember an equally misleading choice being offered in previous elections. The candidate, we were told, was the kind of fellow you would like to have a beer with. Are there no intelligent and principled people to have a beer with, I wondered?

More often than not, this rampant anti-intellectualism (someone more cynical than I might suspect the existence of wide-spread inferiority complexes) has taken the form of disdain for true eloquence.







This is the best version of the story I’ve ever done, I think. I took it from a letter to a friend, though I usually try not to mine my letters. Makes one too cloyingly self-conscious. Hope you’ll forgive me this time. I’m including a few poems that relate.

Once, when my daughter Lynnika was about three, I was a brokish lowly poet in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, serving as poet-in-residence at the two colleges in the town and as Clark County’s on-call poetry-in-the-schools guy.

What the poet-in-residence bit meant was that $2500 of my $10K annual grant was billed by the colleges as providing me office space.  Which meant a desk and a chair in a room without windows, that I never spent any time in at all.  We were living down in the Ouachita River bottoms outside Arkadelphia.  Then my grant went belly-up.  We had been paying a mortgage on ten acres out in the Oauchita Mountains west of Arkadelphia,(and Hollywood, Arkansas).  I’d decided to build a cabin on it for us to live in.

Getting back to nature’s hard.  I did build the cabin, and we did live in it.  Briefly.

But back before all that, before the grant folded, we used to go camp on the land overnight–Lynnice, whose husband I was, and our daughters.  Lynnice was pregnant with our second daughter, Sarah.  So we were more or less going out and dreaming.  Very enjoyable.  There was no structure except a falling in old corn-crib, and there was a lot of punk pine on the hillside we thought of as ours.  Dead and fallen trees, grown soft with decay.  The gravel road looped around our ten-acre tilty but with a relatively flat top piece of rocky topology carpeted with pine and oak and gum and plum and so on.

Anyway, so we one morning we drove out to our place and camped that night.  This was a day in early spring.  Buds were coming out.  That wonderfully luminous but just a bit icy light when we arrived, then afternoon, evening, night.  When night came I constructed a huge fire that threw big flapping shadows on the corncrib and the trees, and underlit the trees, and threw off a rising tornado of sparks (because of the punk pine I’d used).

That morning, Lynnika had wanted the word for “minnows.”  It was one of the more wonderful periods of my life, witnessing my first daughter come into language.  It was entirely magical, how it started so simply with the names of things, and then, supposing things, supposing relationships between things, and then relationships of relationship, but all as beautifully ordered, as greenly exfoliated as any growing tree.

We say people learn their language.  Not exactly.  Language grows in people, is a living being.  I’m talking about something I actually saw happen.

I was Lynnika’s dictionary.  She would come to me for the names of things. That’s what “To a Young Man Working His Way through College” is about. This kid on my doorstep trying to sell me a “dictionary” for children—another one of those condescending constructions in which children are treated as stupid and requiring that the subject be dumbed down–when already, in her, language had attained such power and spendor that such a trivial little collection was laughable. This happened after the events on the land I’m telling you about. In mere weeks she would be constructing elementary sentences and then all of sudden it happened so fast we couldn’t keep up with it.

But this day I was still primal word-giver.  So at her question I gave her minnows for the little silvery flashing swimmers in the sheer thin shallows and swells of our WPA pond (its translucent green dusted and discriminated with a fine powder of yellow pine-pollen) and fish for the category.

As I say, then the night and the big fire flapping.  Over us in perfect clarity if we stepped away, the lucid stars.

And the fire throwing off its torrent of sparks.

And Lynnika had never seen sparks before.  But this time she couldn’t wait to get the word from me.  This time she needed a word right now.

She said, laughing happily, “Look at the fire-fish, Daddy.”

I think most people think language makes poetry, that it’s a refinement, an artifice, a purification.  I saw as clearly as I could possibly see that it went at least exactly the opposite way.  It’s poetry that has made language.

That moment, that creation, that spark of naming.  I became convinced that it is born in every one of us (not to say there are not varying degrees of innate ability), which if it were true would be at least astonishing and maybe miraculous, and that most of us, even the poets–and by poetry I mean to include all writing, possibly all language (Lynnika has found a different way to love language–she’s a linguist, a scientist of language, ABD from U of AZ)–become from frequency and habit inured to the astonishing innate human behavior I see as a sort of goddess in the species.  I became convinced that what genuine poetry does is restore the potency, the freshness that language had when we were first learning it.

The poems (the first one is there to set the time-frame roughly. It happened after Lynnika was born but a year before we moved to Arkadelphia).

 JANUARY 27, 1973

Dear Lord, as if by plan it happened:

All day long, the soul-dulling rain,

but by sunset the cloud-cover opened

here and there gaps, and let a stain

of lemon dawn on building walls,

and trees were crooked light again,

and the gaps widened, and fiery halls

opened in sunward clouds, and umber

glowed on the underbelly shoals

of clouds running eastward to slumber,

and just at six the porch-lights lit

all over town and starlings past number

flocked overhead, and watching that,

I heard the sirens announcing peace,

and people honking in the street.

All the last clouds blew off like fleece

and all the western branches flamed,

leaving the sky a polished piece

of onyx-blue. Let blame be blamed,

let who wants credit take the credit,

let it be as it has been claimed,

a bitter debt till we have paid it—

I say all the sober should get drunk,

and the celebrators celebrate it

in drive-in church and honky-tonk,

and all the car-horns honk honk honk.



No Title


My daughter sits jabbering.

I lean around the corner to look at her.

There she is tilted to the wall

in the mirror I have not yet made time to put up,

pretending to read.

She pulls the pages anyhow apart.

The main thing is to get them separated and make some noise.

Time enough for fine distinctions later.

Come on, typewriter keys,


catching up.


You gone blue write?

Darn right I gone blue write, blue girl

at such a sleepy loss

at my armchair’s arm.

I gone take this yellow pencil (why

did you say blue?),

I gone write you,

I gone blue write all right,

blue like stars

come out in deepening blue

over the bare black

over the sharp black

ideograms of trees,

untranslatable—raw oak sorrow, perhaps,

dotted gaities of gum?

Oh but blue, blue,

like blue going down

undone in puddles, thinning in water, dissolute, gone,

no least tinct like taint of salt, no ghostly hint, none,

but gone, blue,

You gone blue write?

I gone blue write,

like sleep is blue, pure blue, and you, you,

where do you go,

let go, to?

And what, oh blue, are blue fathers to do,

to think, helping you

let be, let go, let blue

be blue be blue be blue. You do

it so well, so simply,

let die your day, lay down all color, color

by color, singing:

Up-up-up a worse a high,

ha I wunner whatcher are—

you do it.  Ah blue, it

is so blue, you, how you are

not afraid, so love will lie by you

in the blue dark,

not afraid, blue, not afraid

to be blue, less, bluely, bluelessly

dispersed, timelessly blue

past blue past all blue blues blued

till yellow Jesus day bang open.



I find it impossible to speak

without music any more—

as if all language had finally

become poetry. And why not? Why not?

What is a word but a spark

somewhere in the brain, in the flesh therefore, a white-hot

leaping, a plasma so faint, so tinily

schooling with fellows,

and how they swerve in a manifold flashing,

the whirl of a mood, a thought, a hushing . . .

Like minnows spinning in shallows,

one silvery host in reversal,

flaring with sunfire, diffracting the scales of color,

moment beyond rehearsal.

Say in 1974, the spring,

early, when we stood on a cold hillside,

you and I and your mother,

you in my arms and prompt as the sunlight

spilling its differentials. You never denied

surprise but wanted always to know

the name of the never-before-met,

why rain was rain and water was water,

and water was always wet,

but water wasn’t always rain, but rain was always water,

and why the pond below

was not water, but a pond with water in it,

and those minnows, those fish flashing and schooling,

What do you call them? Quick as a minute,

I called you, and gave your mother a glance—

that archaic woman, so supple, so clean in her bones—

Oh things had names which were songs which were

a springing of item and light. This was before

I raised us a roof with my own hands, and named your sister

for the treetop blossoms of running yellow

jessamine, open for solstice.

This was before the sound of my restless

hammer, the singing of driven nails in a gridwork, a halo

of hopeful space.

This was before I began to build, but it was ours,

the land, the pond, the place—

the late afternoon in shallow,

in jade-lucid water . . .

All of it ours. And later

we made our night camp

beside the old corncrib falling in and useless,

but an architecture nevertheless,

the shadowy starpunctured frame and stamp

of the human, of the desire

for form, for mastery, for kinship, for the warmth

of a fire. And you knew fire,

its leonine pounce, its agile blue tongue—

but this kindling went whoomph!

like the big bang.

I had dragged punk pine from the undergrowth,

the jackstraw halfrotten aftermath

of starved-out seedlings, so that against a thick black smoke

a vortex rose, a host that went

almost to the starfixed sky, and broke

to meteors, the children of the arc.

And you were too excited this once to wait

for the father-word,

the old slow story of the spark.

Grace jumps before we’re ready,

before we can plan or fail. And so occurred

the ionic, the shellstripped fresh,

the radical made flesh:

Look Daddy, look Daddy–



for my father, Jack Butler, Sr.


The formal ocean has its watery hooks,

and here, far inland,

the water has gotten its hooks in me again.

Oh primocane and floricane and dead old sticks, oh thirst

for tantalant polyhedrals,

leaf-hidden, glimmering–packed purple beads

my eye can cull from wrangle of shadow

somehow halfway across a road!

For here, in the thrumming of a summer morning,

I’m making like a country boy,

picking blackberries,

thinking of fatherhood and childhood

and lost time like form–

My father, I provide, provide (my fathers)

with a rolling of wrist, a trained mumble

of palps to fat clusters, a dropping

of plumpness to palm till palm brims,

must dump in a bucket: Enough moral here

(for a preacher’s boy with a child of his own

twenty years later) in how

the one-too-many, greedily plucked-at,

will tumble a dozen out of the hand,

or how the outventured arm, drawn suddenly back,

will make the barbs clamp, close inward together—

Oh I am one to praise the very

thorns of the blackberry,

rose-cousin and edible tart fruit.

My mind drifts like a child’s, in visions of floating order,

my body attentive, sweat-beaded, mosquito-haunted . . .

These green canes, lashes,

sprung up limply on the wild rolled bramble,

the stiff, persistent stuff

of its own past history—I hardly need

to say like a wave, processions of vanishing structure,

there and not-there,

there at the corner of the eye,

to be gathered . . .


I aint said nothing about chiggers of course, horseflies

in relentless whizzing precession,

the possibility of copperheads or moxicans

somewhere under the interthreaded

honeysuckle and greenbriar: Those forms that threaten invasion,

that are not merely there to be taken

but do their own taking.

Almost mathematically

one may mutter and permutate: sumac,

blackberry brambles to bind it,

sumac and greenbriar, greenbriar and blackberry,

honeysuckle (its flowering spent) and sumac,

honeysuckle and sweetgum, whose stars,

immediate and thick as weeds,

appear in the ditches just now, greenbriar

arresting the flowering elderberry–

And what of the triplets or the white dragonflies

with electric black wings

or blue slender naiads and the dark blue blur

of their whizzing wings, the orders of lizards, rabbits,

all of blue fulminant itchy summer

in one groined prehistoric non-tree,

sumac groaning with bees, heavy-blossomed, in heat,

and me under it with ringing ears looking up

at the branch-vaulted blue,

glad of the sweat-sodden weight of my denim,

at loose in the wild, uncomfortable, happy

to have made my escape,

for once, from breakfast.


Vine, bee, bramble, shrub, tree, and flower

in their tangled communion and trade create

a world, whose verity

is not a function of pain exactly,

though I have come back

with hooks in my face, a sunburnt nose, and later,

ankles nubbled with redbug bites

a man will scratch bloody to make quit itching: Not a world

whose harsh truth poetry cannot enter,

but a world poetry must follow a man into—

let the barbs snag me, let me shit seed,

bite down on a stinkbug

hidden in a handful of winedark fruit.


Lynnika loiters at the pick-up,

the game gone dead for her

after the first few roadside fruit. What are we for,

growing older,

but to learn persistence in the right directions,

the useful stubbornness

no child can manage, the pains to take

for the sake of the story.

I think now of my father’s sermons

in all those backwoods churches, hard seats and dragged-out hymns,

two-week revivals he had to get it up for

after a hundred

two-week revivals, scratching a living and knowing himself

a sinner as bad as any he scolded,

his children troubled. And I was the fat

unpleasant eldest, lazy and book-ridden,

swearing by dreams and wrong-headed,

itching with sleazy and sexual ignorance.

The hardcore faithful to prayermeeting came

on Wednesday nights, the rich midweek,

the church close-grained with pews,

spilling a yellow radiance to dust and sparse grass

as the deacons smoked on the porch and talked

and crops and spiders and kingdoms

rose in the talk and crumbled away, and, as I wrote

in a fragment that has long since crumbled, mosquitoes rose

like angels in the darkening wood, and sang.

Those roads, my daughter, we lived down,

those gravel trails with a church

or store with gas-pumps,

or a little town

at a drowsy focus, way back, the back way,

haunted with wooden bridges and tree-shadows—

I thought we brewed the New Jerusalem,

the world’s own change

and new meaning. I didn’t know.

It has been hard to lose those meanings

and keep my own, but the rest of the world

does exist. I am not much

of a country boy. Except. The fat fruit

seems always to shelter under cool leaves.

Bend over, twist your head, look up.

I’m sorry about the mosquitoes, the dust,

the blazing sun, the hard sharp rocks of the gravel,

the stink of dead animals.

Your father’s a poet and not a preacher.

Not much difference. You roll your own, that’s all.

Like cobwebs

a man walking through trees

breaks with his face,

those lost roads

are broken and gone

on the face of the round world’s present. But

what poetry has had for me

more beauty or order or mystery

than that we thought of in wooden churches

late at night

under the stars, our odd harmonic cries

troubling the owls?

The other night, out at the place,

the new place,

the one we own in two years, our first,


preparing to sleep

in the moon-barred corncrib (its logs unchinked),

exhausted and solitary,


putting in time

to make it our home, this scrap of land,

the chuck-will’s-widow

whipping its call.

the cat snoring,

I thought of my crimes: Imagined monsters

were loose in the woods,

and I could feel the Methodist cemetery

across the road,

its bodies gathered and packed and crumbling,

and thought somehow

of that whole chambered boneyard,

from which I had conjured moldering skeletons,

vengeful and grinning with their own lost crimes,

to come at my scalp

through the moonlit door,

as a fruit like a blackberry, rich with form,

composite. And slept.



Barbara from Truchas came into the room radiant

with cold air, to say how

the horse at the fence, suspicious, had taken at last

a slice of sweetness from her naked fingers.

Once a hummingbird

stirred in my palm, uttered a single high note,

and took the winter air.

In Jayme’s hand, its stunned mate woke, sang, went.

Why is it we want to talk to animals?

None of the animals want to talk to us—

except, of course, those we have kept beside us

all these years: Miaow,

they say, or Wunf. Wunf. Wunf. And mean, See me.

All of our animals

are strays—the wounded, forgotten, misplaced, cast out:

A scrap of kitten with a rotted haunch

howling at ditch-edge, now a fat and happy

three-legged tom. Or our latest, Lawsted,

a mewling in the dark

arroyo last Christmas eve. We spent an hour

scrambling through sand, chamisa, juniper,

persuading her to our help,

persuading her not to become coyote-meat.

But she had called out to us. Lost as they are,

they have developed the syndrome,

self-awareness, have thought to themselves, I exist,

and then, inevitably,

but I will vanish unless they see me, see me.

This is our blessing, the fruit

of the tree of knowledge—of what? Of anything.

Ah, we are the species with questions which we disguise

as answers, we are the true lost animals.

My brilliant friend, the saint of smoking genius,

Big Al Varo on the twelve-string says

it is essential loneliness: We would

cry out to stones, Oh speak, because we are

alone. Perhaps. And perhaps also, of all

creatures most generous, we wish to transmit

the gift that stars our genes and makes us dream God,

we wish to touch as we have been touched,

to say that loneliness

may not be forever or at the last:

Our oldest, Abigail,

in morning, shut out, cries Mama at the door,

the only time—I swear it—

she makes that sound. And Jayme

rises from a warm dream to let her in.


On the occasion of the Faulkner Conference, New Orleans, September 1999, with deep gratitude to Rosemary James and Joe DiSalvo, and particular appreciation for Richard Katrovas, Mark DeFoe, Peter Cooley, and Janet Turner Hospital, fellows on the “Meter and Musicality of Literature” panel—

I don’t know what my father is—

my mother is this tongue.

I see a many-branching tree,

forever young,

forever aging. Or else a river,

or else a fractal of light,

blooming for an instant in

hallways of night.

I have become that tree, that water,

exploded with that fire.

I’ve spent myself on poetry,

not on desire,

so honor all those vanished singers

who shaped the words I say:

I host their breath, and with it sing

all poets today.

We ask for heritage, for spirit,

we ask for sacred flame,

and the burning past spills from our lips

name after name

unnoticed. She moves unseen, the goddess,

she makes us kin, and ken.

What are we but monkeys, for all

our science and zen?

What are we but tricky bastards, upright

by means of continual will,

teetering from balance to balance,

so seldom still,

so busy with continual talk

we hear what isn’t there,

the footstep of the imaginary

on the living stair.

No longer animal entirely,

a tribe of voluble clowns,

we are what the mother has made us: Let lions,

let leopards pounce—

we will die pronouncing incredible arias,

we will die singing our fathers,

our mothers, the sun, the moon, the stars,

and all of those others.

And what are poets of any tribe,

however we differ and quarrel,

but wilding fools, enchanted to music?

—Ghostly, amoral

but holy stuff, almost familiar,

strange music that isn’t

quite music, but is, surprisingly, not

at all unpleasant—

no, no, in fact quite lovely,

in fact the fact of existence

hissing so sweetly across our beings

into blue distance.

What are poets but spirit-talkers

who make the dream-world visible,

as lightning wakens the night river

with an impossible

chaos of pathways, a branching of fire?

Talk dirty, talk mathematics,

talk trash, talk hip, talk tall, talk cardboard

boxes in attics

full of old photos. Talk turkey, talk sense,

talk straight, talk terms, talk to my lawyer,

now you’re talking, you talk the talk

but how do I know ya

can walk the walk? What are humans

but poetry-spouting apes,

changed animals who do strange things

to woids and grapes?

So lift a glass, Popeye and Olive,

hoist up your long-stemmed flute:

With a high and a ho and a hey-derry-do,

down the old chute!

—Here’s one for the language, not as a goddess,

but as a goddess might be.

—And here’s one for beauty, and here’s another

for just you and me.



This renewed bout of posting has helped me with one thing at least.  And that’s what was wrong with that math material I just posted.  None it was in English.  Most of it was in Mathics.  There’s a lot of the problem most people have with math.  It’s often presented with such elaborate pretension. Hmm.   Maybe that’s the problem with poetry too.

It’s true that a notation and a jargon save space and time eventually, however off-putting and incomprehensible they may be to the would-be initiate.  The notation eliminates redundancy, the need to explain all over again what you’re talking about every time you talk about it.  For that reason, I plan to segue (slowly, slowly) to the notation.

I’ve always been dubious about supposed knowledge that’s supposedly too hard to explain.  There is some, and it doesn’t pay to think there isn’t.  Real mathematicians plow through tremendously complex stuff, and I don’t expect them to stop and explain.  There’s wisdom too hard for me.

But I’m sure there are a lot people out there like me.  They actually kind of enjoy math but never tried to go professional.  They like odd little mathematical facts.  They like to play around with numbers.  Algebra made sense to them and they wanted more of that kind of information but at calculus they started to lose touch because nobody was talking their language any more.

So I promise to replace those essays with some English on the same subject.  They’ll run longer but easier to follow.  (For you and me.  Sometimes I go back and re-read an essay and can’t figure out what the hell I was talking about, though it made sense at the time.)

It’ll probably take me a while.  Making sense is the hardest work there is.

I’m assuming most of the people who would read these math posts already have some algebra and plane geometry and trig.  They might not know all the concepts and terms, but they won’t be thrown by seeing an equation written out in the notation.

Oh, and I’m changing the poem in the last post, replacing “latticework” with “rusty screen,” which is the particular image I had in mind.


I’ve decided to publish here some of the many essays I’ve written on mathematical and philosophical subjects.  I realize that kind of stuff bores a lot of people (or, possibly, intimidates them–it often seems to me that so many people are afraid of math because they were taught to fear it–I think most people have a lot more ability at math than they give themselves credit for).  But, what the hey, this sort of thing occupies a large part of my thinking, and you might as well know about it.  You can always just skip them.

In fact, for a lot of them, that may be a good idea.  These essays are more or less the finished products.  The real fun has been on the scratch sheets, the rough and tumble of chasing down an idea and working it out, and the finished product is way more dense than the fun stuff.

And saying that gives me an excuse to copy in an old poem (written in a house backed by woods in Jasper, Texas).  I like to think the poem could apply equally well to mathematics or poetry itself.


When I used to work deferential equations

I had a neat sheet I kept track of it on

inking in ordered chains of tuneful logic

like dew collecting on a rusty screen

or sugar crumbling grain by grain to nectar

but when the next change stumped me as it did

more times than I’ll mention, out came Stubby

the friendly yellow # 2 chewed pencil

with round blunt lead and sweat-stained foreskin wood

long unwhittled in the sharpener’s whirling knives

and Eraser’s thin brass jacket bitten flat

to raise just one more day’s meniscus of correction

and out came Oscar, the mangy scratch-sheet

and all his haypile fat comedian friends

glad to see me as always and so we romp

we tussle in the briar-patch scratchy grass-fields

until a girl without an ounce fat on her

strides by in a pure white muscular gown

and I am dressed in wedding-white for church again

with an ink string tie the height of fashion

over the starchy ruffle of my beating chest

when I used to work D for any ol’ equations


Thinking About Thought

Thought must consider thought itself.

Our consideration does not require an a priori definition of thought. In fact it is better if we do not have a definition to begin with. Useful definitions are usually arrived at as a result of well-managed consideration, and not in advance of the consideration. This is such a basic of good thinking that I am amazed so few take it into account. In particular, many recent discussions regarding consciousness, artificial intelligence, and the nature of reality appear to me to begin by presuming the fundamental character of the phenomenon they would ostensibly describe, and to proceed by means of argument, pro and con. This is not thinking, but the short-circuit of thinking.

The method of prior definition, argument, and counter-argument is the inevitable method of politics, and perhaps that is why it has become so prevalent in those fields that are supposed to value clear thinking: Perhaps it is because so much of our thinking has become politicized.

This method may show occasional partial successes, when the prior definition is a lucky hit, but it is an especially weak method for discovering the character of an uncharted phenomenon and one that is most probably polyvalent. Even simple logic, that limited hand-child of thought, teaches us that the disproof of one contention is not the proof of its opposite.

So we see that we may think freely about thought without first considering its ultimate character, insisting on its sources, or creating a pre-emptive inventory of its uses and productions.

When we speak of thought, we know on a fundamental level what activity we are speaking of. All we are seeking to do in thinking about thinking is deliver that fundamental awareness into the realm of thought itself. We do not have to raise linguistic questions, or questions as to whether computers are “thinking” in the same sense we are, or questions as to whether thought itself is merely an illusory by-product of the brain’s “software.”

All we really have to do is observe thought, and see what it does, and see how it moves, and see what it spends itself on. If we do that well enough, and long enough, I am sure that we will understand thought more deeply.

And here I see that I do entertain at least one prior assumption about thought. I assume that the purpose of thought is understanding. Understanding, not the display of expertise. Understanding, not statistics. Understanding, not the catalogue of a ramifying hierarchy of facts.

Why do humans seek to understand? Some might suppose it is to gain mastery. I suppose it is to create harmony. At the deepest level, perhaps harmony and mastery are the same. But if so, it is at a level that only harmony can reach, that mastery alone cannot touch. But what sort of harmony?

Many people appear to feel that the function of thought is to lift us out of the physical realm into the reaches of “higher” existence—the ideal, the abstract, the spiritual. I am beginning to feel that its function is actually to apprehend those “higher” modes of being, and return them to the body.

Why do we seek harmony? Well, what else is there to do?

You may well disagree with my assumption that the purpose of thought is understanding. I mention it here in an attempt to be as clear and honest as possible. I don’t intend to argue the assumption, because I do not wish it to function as one of those prior definitions. I wish this essay to be not a persuasion, but an invitation to observe. So you may safely trot along beside me for a while and see if you think any genuine observation is occurring.


The Mathematical Model of Thought

It is currently impossible to speak of thought itself without reference to mathematics. I love mathematics, and have had some degree of training in the subject. Mathematics is a valuable tool of thought. But I do not feel that it is identical to thought, or that it is the essence of thought.

Thought is prior to mathematics, and is the more fundamental behavior. Thought created mathematics. Mathematics did not create thought.

This would seem to be a perfectly evident statement. Yet in almost all contemporary fields of thought or research, the mathematical model predominates, even in those fields for which it is ill-suited.

We have the spectacle of physicists and mathematicians writing books presuming to explain, in more or less mathematical terms, such matters as the origin of the universe or the nature of consciousness, when we have no assurance, in either case, that these matters are mathematically treatable.

(A proviso: I am aware that when cosmologists speak of the “beginning” of the universe, in a first Planck interval and Planck distance, they are speaking of a description that seems to fit most of the facts and that is mathematically consistent. In fact, I accept their model (provisionally). Nevertheless, we have no assurance that the beginning they model is the “actual” beginning. How could we know, unless we were there to compare it to our model? Please note further that I do not maintain these questions will never be mathematically treatable—that would be as great a presumption. I am simply saying that we have as yet little indication.)

We have the further spectacle of thinkers in fields which are resolutely a-mathematical imitating the mathematical model—as when a French literary philosopher misconstrues the meaning of i, the square root of negative one, as some sort of universal phallic quality; as when the painter speaks of the uncertainty principle; as when the poet writes “experimental” work.

By “mathematics” I mean to include, for the time being, all of those deeply mathematized branches of science which give us so much conceptual trouble. Has no one ever observed that it is precisely in the mathematized branches of science that we do begin to have conceptual troubles?

Developments in biology in recent years have been as amazing and far-ranging in their effects as those in physics, and actually now promise (or threaten) to bring greater transformations into our lives. And yet, although developments in biology have certainly upset many of our earlier and long-held notions, they have never posed us the paradoxes regarding the fundamental nature of reality that developments in physics have posed.

I am sure that many would assume this is because physics is the more “fundamental” science, the science that pushes closer to the limits of the knowable. We typically create a neat little hierarchy running from physics at the extreme through chemistry then into biology, treating each successive discipline as “fuzzier” and therefore less fundamental. (The categories themselves get fuzzier after biology—which science comes next? Anthropology? Ecology? Where does psychology fit in, how far down the line?)

But is this hierarchy of fundamentalism in fact an accurate description? If it is, how do we know it is? Mightn’t we just as easily assume that the arrangement describes no hierarchy at all? That it describes nothing more than the relative ease with which mathematics may be applied to the given disciplines? That it is, in short, a mirror of our own assumptions?

Why do we assume that the paradoxes of physics are the paradoxes of nature? Is it not possible that they are the paradoxes of mathematics? Is it not possible that when we come up against Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or against the four-slit photon experiment, we are simply meeting Goedel’s Unprovability Theorem in yet another guise?

Please observe that I am very carefully not saying two things: (1) I am not saying that the universe is ultimately knowable, and (2) I am not saying that only our stupid mathematics is getting in the way of knowing it.

Mathematics is a powerful tool for understanding, and we would be fools to abandon it. On the other hand, I at least would be deeply surprised if the universe (or multiverse) were fully knowable by any of its denizens.

What I am saying is that mathematics is only a method of thought, and has limits which thought itself does not have. (Thought has its own different and I think somehow larger limits—but I will discuss that in another place.)

In our age, because of its manifold successes, we have forgotten the limits of mathematics. That is, although we are all aware of Goedel’s Theorem, we treat it as a special result, of interest only to mathematicians, and almost universally fail to draw the implication that, in our study of reality, mathematics can never be a completely adequate tool.

There are many subjects worthy of genuine and rigorous thought which however may not be treated effectively by mathematics. In our culture these subjects have become marginalized, and assigned to the weaker thinkers. They are frequently treated as having no real existence whatsoever.

An example is the question of the existence of divinity. The fact that we cannot run an experiment on God or gods does not mean that we cannot think clearly and powerfully and usefully on the subject. It merely means that we cannot mathematize the subject. But because most strong thinkers today can only think mathematically, the question is usually dismissed out of hand.

Or worse, the question is assigned to theologians to chew over, so that it may become hopelessly confused, buried under a debris of ill-begotten concepts, and eventually completely useless to most humans.

Wait a minute, some might say: We have already had powerful thinkers going over the question of divinity. It happened in the late European middle ages, just prior to (and probably instrumental in) the various renaissances. And look at all the nonsense and folly that came out of that: angels dancing on the head of a pin, the perfection proof of God’s existence.

Not so, I would say. You’re looking at it the wrong way round. Your example in fact supports the point I am making.

What happened in the middle ages was that scholars discovered classical logic, and promptly went around applying it to every theological question they could come up with. Of course the result was absurdity, because those questions were not amenable to the application of logic in the first place.

Mathematics, as has been adequately demonstrated for many years now, may be understood as logic. The operations of mathematics are the operations of logic. They are the operations of logic on a selected and carefully defined set of concepts, but they are the operations of logic.

It is easy to see in retrospect that what the medieval theologians were doing was foolish and wrongheaded. Perhaps they were simply intoxicated with the beauty and potency of this new, to them, method of thought. It was such a powerful method, perhaps they thought it was powerful enough to do anything.

What is harder to see is that when we today dismiss such questions from all rigorous thought because they are not amenable to mathematics, we are committing a very similar, if reciprocal, error.

The question of the existence of divinity is a fundamental question, a very important question. It matters intrinsically to the life of every creature. We may never be able to resolve the question. But we are surrendering far too much territory to thoughtlessness if we do not consider it.

I believe it is possible to think productively and powerfully on such questions, even if we may not think entirely mathematically. I believe we may think with clarity, honesty, and precision, corrected but not ruled by logic. We may at least get rid of nonsense. And while we may not be able ever to settle whether there is a divinity, we could probably come to some reasonable concurrence about what the nature of that divinity might be if it did in fact exist.

We could create, to put it another way, a theoretical model of heaven.

“Not as a god,” Wallace Stevens says, “but as a god might be.”

The question of the existence of divinity is only one of many questions which are important but about which we no longer allow ourselves to do any serious thinking. We do not allow ourselves to do so because it is patent that we cannot yet think about these questions mathematically.

We have, then, a situation in which we either address extremely important questions in a spuriously mathematical manner, or do not address them at all. Surely this is not acceptable. Surely we can find a potency and efficacy in thought that does not depend entirely on mathematics.


The Limits of Mathematics

In order to discuss a sort of thinking which does not depend entirely on the mathematical model, it will be useful to first describe the limits of mathematical thought. Mathematicians and logicians who are familiar with Goedel’s Theorem, the Liar’s Paradox, or Russell’s set-of-all-sets paradox may already have a very good understanding of these limits.

I would like to present a more generally accessible description.

No system can fully comprehend the system of which it is a part—in chaos theory, this means sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Descriptions of reality are systems. They may be thought of as emergent phenomena, and therefore by any approach they are parts of larger systems which themselves are parts of reality.

In human terms, no mind can understand itself fully. In cosmological terms, no model we create can approximate more than a portion of reality. In logical terms, no system can be both consistent and complete: paradox.

Quantum zero.

All logic and all mathematics, to put it another way, are discontinuous at the singularity of paradox. If we have no taste for paradox, we shall be unhappy creatures, for our existence is not only beyond mathematics, but beyond imagination.


Analysis and Synthesis

To think most powerfully and fruitfully, you must think more fundamentally. The most powerful tool of thought is not analysis, which after all is always only logic, but the ability to make connections.

But not all connections are equal. Some are indeed rich and deep, at once evocative and explanatory. Others are merely amusing, although there is frequently genius and passion in the merely amusing. Others are frivolous, a waste of time, like the artificial categories of information on Jeopardy. Still others are perverse, persisted in for the wrong reasons and against all harmony.

If connection is the most powerful tool of thought, how do we select, as individuals and then as tribes, and—one hopes—eventually as humans, those connections which are the most valuable?

We assume an identity between valuable connections and fundamental connections. Anyone may argue this identity does not exist, but we are free to posit it, use it as a working hypothesis, and see whether our results encourage us to continue with the hypothesis or abandon it.

The question then becomes: How do we identify the more fundamental connections? The answer is very simple: root and branch. How many roots (how many antecedents, and antecedents of antecedents) feed into the connection? And how many precedents and precedents of precedents radiate from it? And one further question: How fundamental are the rootlets and the branchlets themselves?

This last question of course brings the task of evaluating a connection into a sort of unprovable circularity. But we are not after proof, remember. We are after better and more useful thought. And we find ourselves in a world in which our attempts to estimate value must always be somewhat circular and self-referential. Only the self needs value. It needs it because it conceives of itself as distinct from everything else. Rankings arise with identities.

There is an interesting question regarding the way in which values arise in any thinking system. On the internet, there is something called a “driver” which powers search engines. The way this driver works, apparently, is to keep count of the most frequently used sites or clues and to strengthen those connections in proportion to the frequency with which they occur.

Such a system is probably a good model for how the human nervous system (or any other intelligence) has evolved. Such a system is also notably self-referential or fed back, and feedback, we have learned, is the hallmark of chaotic systems—in economics, for example, the theory of increasing returns.


Thought and Wellbeing

The essence of strong thought is not in tricks of memory, or in the ability to manipulate increasingly high-order abstractions. These in fact are what computers are so far capable of doing, and all they are capable of doing, and they are not the primary strengths of the human mind, though there are certainly sports out there with fantastic memories, as well as English professors who can deconstruct mathematics and mathematicians who can prove poetry doesn’t exist.

In the same way, though we admire LeBron James or Clayton Kershaw very greatly for their gifts, and for the perfection they have brought to those gifts, we do not mistake for overall good health the ability to jump vertically four feet in the air from a standing stop, or the ability to fling a baseball at a hundred miles an hour at a dime-sized target 60 feet 6 inches away.

Good health is the vigor of a body, any body, with reference to the whole of that body and not its exceptional abilities. So: a strong mind is not so much a mind with unusual abilities in certain arenas as a healthy mind, a mind that uses its own potential to the maximum. Any non-damaged human mind is capable of remarkable feats of thought, given its maximum health.

We may train our bodies to health, barring accidents and illness, and we may likewise train our minds to think powerfully. It’s a rigorous training, unless we happen to be one of those born with the ability. There are such physical sports, born with a constitution of such innate well-being that ordinary living can hardly damage it. There are such mental sports.

I consider health of thought to be the first requirement of thinking. It is a discipline little understood as a discipline—that is, as a path—and as a result, there are few masters to teach us, though there are all sorts of partial masters who may train us to produce prodigal results in a narrow arena.

And what is health of thought?

It is characterized by flexibility, connectivity, clarity, and the willingness to recognize preconceptions and surrender them. Thought is a gift of the being, as nimbleness, coordination, efficiency, and freshness are the gifts of the body.

Objectivity is an ideal, not a fact. Honesty is the only science.