Friday, July 19, 2013

A Los Alamos Diary: "We May Eventually Comprehend More of this Sea of Words"

Kathy and I have been staying for a week in an RV court in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A couple of days ago two new people pulled in next door to our rig. They are retired engineers. The husband worked for many years designing and testing munitions for the US Navy. 

Yesterday I rode with the husband to Los Alamos, which is an hour’s drive from Santa Fe. There we spent hours in the Bradbury Science Museum. It has extensive displays about the Los Alamos Laboratory, which is now the size of several university campuses; the Manhattan Project, which was centered there during World War II; J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Laboratory’s original director; and the role of nuclear weapons in WWII. There are life-size duplicates, which I photographed, of “Little Boy” (the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima) and “Fat Man” (the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki).

As I expected, I found all of this fascinating and deeply troubling. I have always worried that the US has been taken over, to a large extent, by an imperial agenda that expresses itself through military interventions whose true cost to our people and those we intervene against is staggering and is seldom dealt with by us. WWII, which developed from imperial rivalries in which we actively engaged beginning with “opening” Japan and occupying the Philippines in the nineteenth century, is no exception to this pattern. The questions about whether we were justified in using Little Boy and Fat Man in the way we did, are just one aspect of this long and difficult story.

An entry from President Truman’s diary which the exhibit quoted says that he instructed Secretary of War Stimson to have the nuclear weapons dropped on military targets only, not on “women and children.” I wonder whether Stimson heard Truman say that; and what about the fire bombings, etc. Of course, a museum exhibit wouldn’t normally explore such fine historical details as these.

A separate exhibit put together by several veterans’ groups spoke rather defensively about Truman’s decision to drop the bombs. The only alternative to the actual bombing which it considered was an invasion of Japan’s home islands by US troops, which would undoubtedly have cost a very large number of American lives. It seems that a group at Los Alamos did discuss a possible “demonstration” of the destructive power of the nuclear weapons, against a target not involving civilians. A group led by Leo Szilard at Los Alamos asked Truman not to use the weapons at all. The weapons had been developed in the fear that Nazi Germany might develop them first, but Germany had been defeated by conventional weapons (and it turned out that Germany had not in fact made serious efforts toward developing nuclear weapons).

The whole issue is very complicated, particularly when you ask what other options the US might have pursued from the nineteenth century onward. Trade, fears, “power vacuums,” “geopolitics”…. All that we actually know is what actually happened.

During our fairly extended conversation, and despite having been a lifelong Navy employee, my neighbor endorsed President Eisenhower’s warning about the undue power of the “military-industrial complex.” I could have hugged him when he said that.

Robert Oppenheimer himself became embroiled in the political and moral emotions of the 1950s, when he lost his security clearance due to associations he had had with a few American communists in the 1930s. I’ve known a few communists myself, and have been attracted to Marxism because of the cogent observations it makes about imperialism and other aspects of capitalist societies. 

Reading the biographies of important Manhattan Project people, I was strongly affected by the bio of Hans Bethe. Bethe spent his later years at Cornell University, where I studied. He campaigned continuously for nuclear arms control and disarmament, and was a serious poet. Reading his little bio, which didn’t even mention his poetry, I choked up with emotion. Thinking about this, I realize that Bethe represents to me the unity of nature, morality, art, and spirit. I am always touched by people whose lives reach across these divides.

This morning I dreamed that I was reading the early pages of Hegel’s Science of Logic again, but now it seemed much more like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, a sea of words and phrases that only occasionally conveyed something intelligible. We were a group, a class no doubt, working on the book by skipping through it. Eventually it was indeed Ulysses after all. Our guide, who seemed like my former professor Terry Irwin, advised us to mark and reread a major passage, in which we could see some guidepost phrases. We were happy that we could come back to them at the next class and perhaps grasp more of what they contained.

I think this dream is a comment on (especially) my experience yesterday at Los Alamos. The factual and moral complexity of twentieth-century history; the moral difficulties faced by individuals from Truman and Oppenheimer to my Navy employee friend; all of this boggles my mind. It’s like the “sea of words and phrases” in the dream. It would be too easy to simply condemn everyone who has been in any way involved (including myself, as a US citizen and taxpayer). It would also be too easy to simply absolve us all. My instincts lead me to try not to dwell on these difficult issues, and I don’t think it’s useful to obsess about them, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to ignore them, either.

The dream says that this history is like a sea of words that only occasionally convey something intelligible. I should mark and reread major passages, in which I may eventually grasp more of what they contain. That is, I should keep my eyes open to these facts and issues, rather than hiding from them, and I may eventually be able to understand them and speak to them in a more adequate way. It was good to go to Los Alamos and confront these events and people, rather than staying away from them because of the difficult emotions they inspire. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Arnold Mindell's _Quantum Mind_

Arnold Mindell’s Quantum Mind. The Edge Between Physics and Psychology (2000) is a wonderfully creative exploration of parallels between twentieth-century physics and Mindell’s own broadly Jungian understanding of psychology. The book explains both the physics and the psychology in considerable detail, making them accessible for intelligent beginners. The psychological exercises that Mindell scatters through the book are particularly stimulating and mind-expanding. Mindell was trained at MIT in physics and at Zurich in Jungian psychology, and he has been a leading teacher and writer for decades in the latter field, so he has very strong credentials. He writes clearly and often evocatively. I don’t know of another book that explores this territory in so much detail and with comparable verve.

At the same time, one has to acknowledge that much of what Mindell writes is inevitably very speculative. His starting point, Jungian psychology, is itself viewed with considerable suspicion by most academic psychologists. They place more emphasis than the Jungians do on quantitative and controlled experiments and much less emphasis on the study of subjective experience, such as dreams and synchronicities. Much of academic psychology aspires to use methods that are comparable to those that are used in physics and the other “hard” sciences. The Jungians, by contrast, are more interested in the content of experience, which as such doesn’t lend itself to controlled experiment.

So Mindell’s investigation places itself squarely in the middle of the great divide between the “two cultures,” the sciences and the humanities, “objectivity” and “subjectivity,” which have so much difficulty communicating with each other in our time that they have come to seem almost like two separate worlds. Writers who try to deal constructively with this divide must be very brave, since they’ll inevitably meet withering critique from one side or the other or both.

Mindell is emboldened, in his endeavor, by the remarkable developments in twentieth-century physics, especially relativity theory and quantum mechanics. These appear to undermine the long-standing Newtonian deterministic conception of nature, and even the separation between “object” and “subject,” on which the Newtonian consensus was built. Like quite a few other commentators, Mindell senses that these developments may open up an opportunity for useful interaction and even perhaps synthesis between the two cultures.

So he goes on a long journey of exploration through first the mathematics of Newtonian science (in which he sees a trace of subjectivity in the “imaginary numbers” on which calculus depends); then quantum entanglement; then relativity and its unique constant, the speed of light; then black holes and virtual particles. In each case he comes up with apparent parallels in his Jungian or “process work” psychology.

Mindell acknowledges candidly that many physicists won’t feel compelled to acknowledge these parallels as significant. Physicists in training are regularly told not to worry what is the real meaning of (say) quantum indeterminacy or entanglement, but just learn the mathematical tools that have proven to be so powerful in practical applications. Figures like Wolfgang Pauli (who coauthored a book with Jung) and David Bohm are exceptions, and viewed with skepticism by their colleagues. Mindell hopes that physics in the future will broaden its horizons.

Nearly a century after the great breakthroughs of relativity and quantum mechanics were made, this seems rather optimistic. I see no reason to think that the discipline of physics will become any broader, as long as all of the financial incentives push it in the other direction. What one can reasonably hope is that the broader culture will become less idolatrous toward physics and toward quantitative/ experimental methods in general. And we might then see more individual scientists like Pauli and Bohm speaking to the broad issues that their discipline, as such, will probably continue to ignore.

The main thing that may help to reduce our idolatry of physics is that spokespeople for the “humanities,” including humanistic and transpersonal psychology, are becoming less academic and more deeply experiential. We can see this in Mindell’s own “process work,” which goes far beyond the conventional “therapeutic hour” and the residual “intellectualism” of (even) much Jungian practice. Humanists who have this kind of deeper grounding and flexibility will be more self-confident, and better communicators and teachers.

An intellectual development that may provide aid in this whole process is the re-emergence, in recent decades, of humanistic and transpersonal philosophy and religious thought. After a long period in which leading academic philosophers idolized the hard sciences, a significant part of academic philosophy in recent decades has been rediscovering a broader perspective that was articulated by many of its classical authors, such as Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Whitehead.

Coming from this reborn, broader kind of philosophy, as I do, what strikes me about Mindell’s work as well as about Jung’s is that they draw heavily, without really knowing they’re doing so, on the broadly Platonic tradition in philosophy, religion, and literature. This broadly Platonic tradition is so deeply ensconced in many aspects of our culture that we scarcely notice it. If it were properly studied and thus “amplified” and brought explicitly to bear on our ongoing issues, the effect could be greater than we imagine. In particular, it could facilitate precisely the sort of intelligent interaction between the “two cultures,” science and the humanities, which Mindell is trying to help bring about. 

Here are a couple of examples of how Mindell draws on our broadly Platonic cultural background. In his pivotal chapter 30 on “The Self-Reflecting Universe,” which sums up his journey through the physics theories that I mentioned, Mindell speaks of being “liberated, free of CR [Consensus Reality] forms” (p. 479). In the final chapter of the book, Mindell speaks of “self-reflection” which “manifests in the sense of liberation from yourself while the outer system remains the same” (p. 582).

By speaking of “liberation” and being “free,” Mindell appeals to a deep need and ideal, which he doesn’t spell out. He doesn’t tell us how “Consensus Reality” or “myself” make me less free than I could be, or how it could be reasonable to imagine becoming more free in these areas. But we know, in some fashion, what he’s assuming here. We know that a reality that’s not just a widely-shared  “consensus,” and an experience that’s not just “me” (in my familiar forms), could well represent a valuable kind of freedom, because they could bring me closer to a deeper, truer “me.”

This coming closer to a deeper, truer me, is precisely what Plato’s philosophy is all about. A famous instance is his allegory of the man who has been shackled in a cave all his life, seeing only shadows that are projected on the cave’s walls in front of him. When the man is finally allowed to leave the cave and see the real world and the sun, he has been liberated from the shadows, which we can take to be his familiar ideas and familiar desires. He now has a chance to form ideas and desires through his own thought, rather than just habit, so that they’ll be his own, in a way that the shadows weren’t. In this way, he finds his true self, for the first time.

It’s a version of the “hero’s journey,” from mythology. The “true self” is the golden treasure that the hero steals from the dragon. And in our ostensibly “scientific” age, the quest for our true selves is still everywhere. It’s what religions and self-help programs offer to help us to do, and what novels, TV shows, and movies show us sometimes, through challenging experiences, succeeding in doing. Even black comedies like “The Simpsons” and “Waiting for Godot” get their punch from their mordant despair over our chances of succeeding in the quest to discover who we really are.

Our culture has always focused on this quest, so we take it for granted. Mindell takes it for granted. But it’s precisely what deterministic science, including some of the latest neuroscience, appears to challenge. So we need to explore just how deeply we experience this “seeking our true selves,” and whether we could ever really think of ourselves differently. Why, for example, would we care about neuroscience itself, if we didn’t care about what we should really believe about the world, and thus about getting beyond whatever mental habits we happen to have been trained in, to a kind of functioning that would relate to the truth? We want our beliefs to be freely arrived at, not just an “automatic” response to shadows. And we think that the “we” that wants beliefs of this kind is truer than the “we” that just wants to believe what we’re familiar with.

This is Plato for you, and this is our culture. It’s much deeper, I submit, and much less “optional,” than some of the “gee-whiz” literature about neuroscience, etc., would have us believe. Because it provides the motivation for the sciences themselves, as well as for the humanities (philosophy, religion, and the arts). This is why it provides, as far as I can see, the only promising basis for a new, deeper interaction between the two cultures.

A second deeply Platonic idea that Mindell relies on but doesn’t identify as such can be seen in his distinction between two kinds of death. In the first, “you experience yourself as endangered, threatened, annihilated.” In the second, “you do not experience annihilation but fluidly step out of time and become your sentient self, the perennial immortal, one with all things” (p. 514). Plato describes this second, exceptional kind of death in his Symposium. And the Symposium gives an extensive account of what makes this second kind of death possible. Namely, that we clarify what we care about in ourselves, which is (ultimately) our effort to be who we truly are. And secondly that we learn how to appreciate other people as embodying this same effort, so that the world becomes a “sea of beauty,” as Plato puts it, rather than a bunch of competing and endangered islands.

This is the vision of all of the western mystics, from Plato through Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Hegel, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Rilke. Of the eastern mystics too, of course, but we’ve heard about them. What many of us haven’t heard so much about is our home-grown Greek, German, British, and American mystics. Least of all have we heard that the central tradition of western philosophy and psychology, from Plato through William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and Carl Gustav Jung, draws on and articulates experiences of this “sea of beauty.” So that these experiences are “in our bones,” culturally, and they come out of Arnie Mindell’s mouth without needing to be explained or defended.

But the more conscious we can be of them, the more effective they’ll be. So let’s get to know our tradition and celebrate it. Let’s share more of it with Arnie Mindell, and (more importantly) with Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and their followers, when they show interest, so that as many of us as possible can “fluidly step out of time” and die happy.