Thursday, June 28, 2018

Heuristic structures in knowledge

My friend Thomas Ball, the filmmaker, has posted another fabulous reflection on his blog, at Telos productions;  which was previously called "The diary of a filmmaker".   I have loved his essays over the years, on art;  and what art means for us.  This month's reflection is about the Venice Biennale, and the show on the time between the world wars, as fascism intensified, and what that futuristic cultural context was, both in history and art, and how they interacted. 
One of the things Tom quoted was a discussion of the meaning of heuristics.  When I was in college, I majored in philosophy.  My metaphysics professor had us learn from the book "Insight" by Bernard Lonergan, SJ.  Lonergan was interested in the way we know, in the structure of knowledge and shared thinking in scientific endeavors.  He wrote a LOT about heuristic structures of knowing.  SO here is my posting to Tom's blog on this issue:
"I also have to say something about the word “Heuristic”. It warms the cockles of my heart, as it is a very important word in philosophy. You probably remember that I majored in philosophy! I was taught in metaphysics, that the stuff of knowledge fits into heuristic structures of thought, much as we fit things into boxes for mailing, or for packaging something. A heuristic structure in philosophy is something like a steel girder skeleton of a skyscraper– you are going to fill it with the rest of the building, with the details and the actual stuff, but you need this scaffold to begin with. The scaffold in thinking is the outline or the container of such information, and how it fits together with other information. For example, we could say that knowledge is sort of like a castle, with lots of turrets and rooms, and occasionally a whole wing gets redone, when it seems it is too narrow or too dark, or a whole new idea comes about. (for example, when physics was grappling with what Einstein said, which shifted us away from Newtonian physics. We acknowledge that we started with Newtonian physics, but we have this second or third floor, where a more sophisticated model exists, and where finer tuning for what is real can be done by scientists working at the edges of knowledge in this field. We have to use the materials we know, and we have to build on what has come before. Kant worked to try to explain categories of thought such as gravity, weight, space and time, sequence, coherence; ways we can describe scientific processes so that something can be checked for accuracy, or taught to someone else. How can we agree on what the scaffolding IS, for thinking and for exploring new theories or new data, finding new answers to our endless questions and with our ever-present curiosity? This is the issue of heuristics. Lonergan said that we are constantly expanding knowledge at the border of the known, with heuristic structures which are needing to be filled in. This also has to do with process, with evolution, with finding the boundaries of the known and then exploring something experimental beyond that. Thanks for sharing that word, which has so much philosophical nuance attached to it!"

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Patience, way and pace, rhythm; Singing the Psalms

The Benedictine monks in the Monastery on Big Sur have been teaching me something about pace: peace, pax, pace.  Singing with them, trying to follow the plainsong melody and rhythm, singing psalms which are maybe 3-4,000 years old, singing in the rhythm of the peaceful and prayerful day.  Vigils at 5:15, Lauds at 7 am, Mass at midday,  and vespers in the evening, provide a structure of a day which mirrors the seasons, allows work and rest, contemplation and action.  At night, the stars encrust the heavens, and they are there in the daytime too, but the sunshine hides them.  The ocean with the whales moving north, the whitecaps on the windy afternoon, is also a lullabye.  They are teaching me the time-honored patience in the rhythm of a peaceful day.  My impatience is carefully folded into the singing, into trying to stay in tune and in the pace of the verses.
Perhaps some would rather hurry, go faster, be like the hare in the fable of Aesop, the hare that runs, then dawdles, not plodding along steadily like the tortoise.  In the music there are whole notes, half-notes, quarter notes and eighth notes, up and down the scales.  i get it now that these singing lessons are an invitation to stability and sustainability, gently pulling us along by melody and rhythm, and praise and thanksgiving, until we are capable of tilling our own fields and living our own days in a reasonable pattern.  
I have been reading the AA big book through this weekend, and understanding more about the drowning, the fear of suicide, the desperation to quit when one cannot quit drinking.  Last weekend I went to the NAMI-California meeting, to discuss and go deeper in understanding the problems of the mentally ill.  Failure, loss, violence, madness, inability to trust in the Lord’s goodness, generations of cruelty, neglect and a belief in a violent God.  How do we come to see and fill the gaping holes in consciousness from bad parenting, bad training?  How can we begin to heal these deep, deep wounds?  
I   think of the plagues in Europe, the death of almost everyone, starting over again, and reinventing civilization.  I think of Julian, the anchoress saying “All shall be well” from her tiny cell cemented to the wall of the abbey in Norwich, while the plague decimated the town around her.  
Today’s was my favorite reading from the Gospel of John, the empty tomb—- Magdalene sees, and calls Peter and John to come.  The clear particular details, the binding cloth for his head folded and left on a bench nearby, not with the rest of the burial cloths.  (We will not worship a pile of stones;  the monument is empty— He is risen!)
(I want a painting of Mary Magdalene’s face, looking at the risen Lord.)
The only way the pace makes sense is that the cosmos is held in a loving embrace of God, that we are moving toward the Eschaton as Teilhard de Chardin said, not in the way of a football goal post, but with the imprint of the goal in our DNA, in our souls.  As we grow in all of evolution, as human evolution takes hold, we move toward the goal expressing itself within us as our deepest yearning.  
There is a way and pace which leads to life more abundantly;  succeeding in blooming, not burnt out or failed to bring forth fruit.  This rhythm must be in community, not in private.  This singing, this plainsong, teaches the lessons of community effort.  I try to stay in the rhythm, and on the right page, and in the right key, my voice rising and falling with those who know better and are more skilled at this melody.  My voice is channelled between their voices, and we are harmonic in our praise.   This is my lesson in patience, matching breath and tone and words to the psalms, to the melodies, to the holidays, the solemnities and the stories from the communion of saints.  Love, respect, generous listening, communion!  And in our end is our beginning.  
Patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit, but also there are the others: peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, love and joy.  We must seek to understand and also to forgive, to tolerate the flaws in each other, to look more to our own, trying to sing “in key” and to encourage each other to sing with more joy and less self-consciousness, so that all things work together for good. 
Viktor Frankl said “All the freedom in the world lies between stimulus and response”.  We are free to be silent, and we are free to sing.  In singing, we grow to be a choir together! 
This cruciform pattern of life, of seasons, of the resurrection; new life, the whales heading north playing in the bay, the baby birds learning to sing and to fly, the wildflowers blooming in the cliffs, all creation in labor to bring forth new life!  Alleluia!