Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.
…Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
…The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love… Check this lying hospitality and lying affection. Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
The United States of America is often mistakenly considered a democracy. Even some of our recent Presidents have spoken as if it were a democracy, and one of them called for spreading the fire of democracy around the world. Well, we have seen just what kind of fire that policy has spread in the Middle East. In fact, the United States is not a true democracy, and most of the Founding Fathers of America considered “democracy” a dirty word. They were students of classical Greek and Roman thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Cicero who reasoned that democracy was pretty near to the worst form of government that there is. Only tyranny is more vicious than democracy from a classical perspective, and the Founding Fathers viewed democracy as a “tyranny of the majority.” Those with a poor education in history think that democracy was some shining accomplishment of the Greeks, when in fact almost all leading Greek intellectuals were harsh critics of democracy.
Analysis of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the various writings (including the private letters) of the Founding Fathers make it clear that, rather than being a democracy, the United States is grounded on the concept of Natural Right – sometimes also known as the Rights of Man. The founders of the American constitutional Republic – and science by the way also some of their French revolutionary colleagues – saw Natural Right as a universal ethical standard. In his book The Rights of Man, Thomas Paine, who set off the American Revolution with his more widely read pamphlet Common Sense, explicitly and publicly states what others of the founders privately believed: Natural Right is so universal that it applies even to all of the other intelligent beings throughout the Universe, so that the bell of liberty rung by the American Revolution is not even limited to all of the oppressed individuals on the planet Earth – it reverberates throughout the Cosmos.
For Deists and Freemasons such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other key founders, the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence was not the God of the Bible but the macrocosmic order reflected in the microcosm of reason that allows us to perfect ourselves. This relationship between an intelligence inherent in Nature at large and the conscientious self-consciousness characteristic of human nature is at the core of the idea that we have certain rights that are “inalienable” – in other words, not given by any government and therefore not justly ignored, withdrawn, or violated by any government.
Even if a 99% majority of people in this country were to vote through their elected representatives to strip individuals of their natural rights, their votes would be null and void. Military officers who have sworn to uphold the Constitution could legitimately disempower a congress or President that acknowledged such a majority vote. So, again, the United States is very far from being a democracy. It is a constitutional government dedicated to the protection of the Natural Rights of Man, where “man” means not just men and women but each and every intelligent being in the Universe.
The American founders thought that democracies will always be instruments of master manipulators, whether through the coercive power of the collective unconscious of the ignorant mob or through the dealings of oligarchs who hide behind the façade of democracy in order to outlast other more forthright forms of tyranny. Any authentic philosophical project ultimately represents a rebellion against all forms of tyranny, including tyranny of the majority. Its goal is the highest human self-consciousness and the most creative self-determination. If a society believes that there is an eternal, unchanging Wisdom that can be definitively attained by a person living within the present time, and that another intelligent person need only to study under such a sage to have this knowledge imparted to him, then that society will never see the kind of scientific and political revolutions that are catalyzed by genuine philosophers.
A philosopher is someone whose thought engages with fundamental questions concerning Truth, Beauty, and Justice, in a way that leads to the discovery of concepts with a potential to catalyze scientific and political revolutions. The philosopher’s ethics and politics must be grounded on his metaphysics and epistemology, and this integral thought has to be guided by an aesthetic intuition comparable to that of the most extraordinary geniuses in literature and the arts.
Metaphysics asks about the ultimate nature of reality. Ethics is concerned with the question of “the good life.” Epistemology is concerned with the theory of knowledge or how it is that we can know what we claim to have knowledge of. Politics is concerned with the art of statecraft and the applied understanding of the concept of Justice. Aesthetics is a study of the nature of the beautiful, for example, as contrasted with the merely pleasant in judgments of taste.
Until about 250 years ago all of what we now study and practice as the various empirical sciences were considered types of natural Philosophy, falling within the domain of Metaphysics or Epistemology. Science or Scientia simply means “knowledge,” which is part of what philosophers sought in their “love of wisdom” (philosophia). Beginning with Physics in the mid 1700s, then Chemistry and Biology in the 1800s, and finally Psychology in the early 1900s, the various sciences attempted to distinguish themselves from Philosophy. Yet, in fact, what had happened was that a certain type of metaphysics had become dominant in Physics, and ever since most other scientists have tacitly deferred to it.
For the last couple of centuries there have been an almost universal marginalization and exclusion of work in the sciences that does not suit the metaphysical doctrine that there is only matter and that the smallest or most elementary constituents of matter interact with each other in a mechanical way. Yet this dominant metaphysics of the scientific establishment makes nonsense out of Ethics. This remains true even if many have tried to worm their way out of recognizing it. Some establishment scientists try to speak as if, from out of the gray matter of the brain and the various mechanical processes that make it function, there is an “emergence” of mind, including its ability to make choices that are sufficiently free that the individual making them can be held responsible for the actions that embody those choices. Yet mind as an “emergent property” is completely empty and superfluous rhetoric unless the mind that emerges can do things not reducible to the elementary particles or waves – or, these days, superstrings – that have none of the agency that is attributed to persons.
It is not true that Ethics does not make claims about the way that the world is. A world in which ethical or unethical action makes sense cannot be a world of nothing other than mechanistic causality acting on the microscopic material structures that make up everything in nature without remainder. Nor can it be a world wherein everything that we might do – or rather that we might misperceive ourselves as initiating – is already an event mapped out in a completed logical space accessible to the eternal mind of God, whose mind is capable of now surveying every possible future. Either of these possible futures collapse into a single predefined future, in which case we have no free will, or there are an infinity of parallel universes in which doppelgangers of ourselves live lives in many cases nearly identical to our own and in other cases somewhat more different, in which case none of these parallel selves are any more unique or uniquely responsible for the minutely different iterations of their actions than we are for ours in this one of many possible worlds.
I can well imagine traveling through a worm-hole into an alternate universe where I meet a counterpart of myself who has lived a very similar life, but has or has had somewhat different relationships with counterparts of people with whom I have or have had certain relationships. My presence in his life would change it and, once I traveled back through the worm-hole to my world, my encounter with him would make me reflect on and change the circumstances of my own life as well. Even if these lives were for all intents and purposes identical, the possibility of meeting my counterpart would allow each of us to act freely in reaction to the other – which, at that point, would cause the direction of our two lives, and of our two worlds, to significantly deviate from one another. Only in this case would each of us be metaphysically independent agents.
It is a question of novelty. I must be able, by my actions, to transform the world around me in such a way as it could never be transformed were it not for my decision to take those actions. Of course, this transformation need not always be according to my intention, and indeed if it always were exactly what I wanted, that might pose as great a psychological obstacle to a life worth living. It may be an extremely subtle and hardly noticeable transformation that I effect in the empirical world, and in the large and long view it probably always is. However, it must be possible to do something no one has done in just the way that I am contemplating doing it – not anyone in this world of mine, or anyone however like me in any other world that there might ever possibly be, or that there ever has been. Otherwise, I do nothing at all, and for that matter “I” have insufficient personal identity to really be anyone either. To be someone who makes his or her life what it alone uniquely is, and not the life of another, demands a non-reductionist view of consciousness, one wherein our minds are not ontologically derivative of some more elementary constituents.
In his last years, William James – who was the brother of a great story-teller – came close to seriously advocating such a view in connection to the problem of free will. In two sections on “Novelty and Causation” in Some Problems of Philosophy, James points out that the notion of “causation” primarily derives from our own experience of bringing things into being that we intuitively know could not otherwise have been. Our own acts of origination, our acts of creation, are the basis upon which we then only secondarily attribute causes to other beings in nature. To intellectually abstract “causation” from its primary meaning as an immediate experience of the agency of conscious willing beings such as ourselves, and to turn it into an impersonal universal principle, leads to an infinite regress wherein causes collapse into effects of other causes, without a first cause being found anywhere within the limits of possible experience. Without a first cause with a metaphysically irreducible explanatory power, all causality loses its necessary aspect.
It is worthy of note that the Greek root of the word “mathematical” is mathesis – which means “that which can be learned,” in other words that which is formulaically anticipatable. On the other hand, logos, the Greek root of the word “logic,” originally means “discourse” or even “story,” and its first philosophical use in reference to the constitution of the cosmos still retained this sense. That first use of the notion of “logic” – to refer to dynamically adaptable tactical rules on a cosmic scale – was by Heraclitus, who also called the cosmos “a child at play, moving pieces in a game.” It may be that any free will worth having requires the world to indeed be something like a story-teller’s tale – where fundamental ontology allows for the same logically “impossible” phantasmagoria characteristic of the vagueness of aesthetic imagination.
In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism that André Breton put out in 1929, he called for a “derangement of all the senses” directed toward this end, and for a revolt against centuries of “domestication” and “insane resignation” to an all-too-unimaginative conception of “reality.” Breton identifies a Kabbalistic concern with the power of language in the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, but then criticizes Rimbaud for not going far enough – for not recognizing that the world is constituted by poetic logos, in other words that poetry literally has the power to transform the world. The alchemical Philosopher’s Stone becomes, for him, that which allows the “imagination to take a stunning revenge on all things,” to re-imagine the human reality.
Jackson Pollock’s early paintings are an evolution directly out of Surrealism, and they continue the surrealist concern with alchemical or occult themes and motifs. If this were not obvious from the content of the paintings themselves, the titles he chose for them make this explicitly clear. Here are some of my personal favorites from this period: Male and Female (1942–1943); Guardians of the Secret (1943); Troubled Queen (1945); Alchemy (1947). There is also a related totemic quality and shamanic trend in this early work, for example: Bird (1941); Birth (1941); The She-Wolf (1943); Totem Lesson 2 (1945). Yet once he makes the transition to his fully abstract expressionist style, somehow the magical dimension remains and in a few pieces appears to be working its effect on the viewer at an ever deeper level; again, the titles that Pollock chose reflect his awareness of this: Lucifer (1947); Full Fathom Five (1947); One (1948). Pollock made a similar transition as Max Ernst did when he went from painting overtly alchemical pieces to creating paintings alchemically – even if they do not feature any explicitly discernible esoteric symbols. The nature of the magic at work in Pollock’s paintings has now been discovered, and it is far from any trickery – unless real conjuring of the kind practiced by a sorcerer is to be considered trickery.
Richard P. Taylor, a physicist at the University of New South Wales, who is also an abstract painter, discovered that there are fractals in Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings at many different levels of magnification. He reports his findings in a piece titled “Order in Pollock’s Chaos,” which appeared in Scientific American (December, 2002). Taylor happened upon this discovery during a break from his work at the university to go on a retreat organized by the Manchester School of Art. However, a storm struck the Yorkshire moors in northern England and instead of simply being holed up indoors, Taylor recruited some fellow artists to build a contraption made of fallen branches with paint buckets attached to them that would harness the wind pattern and direct the paint onto an appropriately positioned canvas. What they found after the windstorm was astonishing: a Jackson Pollock painting. Taylor had an insight and went back to test it at the University, working with a group of experts in respective fields from mathematics and computer science to perceptual psychology.
It turns out that if quintessential Jackson Pollock paintings are scanned in to a computer and then overlaid with a grid that can be loosened or tightened in its level of magnification, a mathematical analysis of the drips on the canvas reveals that they conform precisely to the kind of fractals that are found in nature: in sea shells, in sunflowers, in tree branches, in weather patterns, and so forth. The difference between these fractals and those mechanically produced by a computer are that they display only a probabilistic statistical self-similarity that has an organic feel to it, rather than an exact self-similarity where the pattern breaks and repeats the same way at regular intervals. Moreover, these natural fractal patterns are discovered in Pollock’s paintings at many different levels of magnification, in other words – there are fractals within fractals within fractals. The smallest fractals found are 1,000 times smaller than the largest.
There is no way that Pollock could have planned this kind of painting, at that in the 1950s – decades before the scientific study of the fractals discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot. It is absolutely impossible for the rational mind and lies completely beyond the conscious or analytical perceptual capacity of human beings. Yet, Pollock once chose to epitomize his artwork with this statement: “My concern is with the rhythms of nature.” There is documentary evidence that he would dance around his canvas with movements that very closely resemble the ritual dances of Native American Shamanism, except more fluid and dynamic. He would also paint in bursts, over a long period of time – sometimes months. This would account for the many different layers of fractals. He would lay down only so many as he could while an unconscious force was still moving his body, then he would stop.
The best evidence that such an extraordinary process was at work is that only Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings have these fractals in them. When other drip paintings in “the Pollock style,” including clever forgeries that might even fool some art critics, are scanned into the same computer program, they fail to yield the fractals in a genuine Pollock. Taylor theorized that the unique aesthetic experience of Pollock paintings, the reason why they are more widely appreciated than other works of abstract expressionism by people with a well-developed aesthetic intuition, is that the human mind is naturally keyed to respond to the beauty of fractals in nature.
This is as much as to say that aesthetic judgment is no less arbitrary than the other domains of philosophical thought, and it is as integral to the task of being a philosopher as metaphysical, ethical, and political thought. In fact, understanding the nature of genuine creativity is inextricable from fathoming the kind of metaphysical structure at work in nature that makes ethical and political concepts such as “Justice” and “Right” meaningful in the first place. The art of being an authentic philosopher demands creative and integral thought in all of these domains, free from the constraints of ossified traditions and the tyrannical dictates of unconscious masses in any and every society. Such independent individuals are the true lovers of Sophia – brothers across the ages, and into the distant future, into the lighthouses of a galactic Alexandria. From Zarathustra onwards, all are flames of the same undying cosmic fire and the glowing forges of futures past. The philosopher’s task is that daring, but providentially favored endeavor (annuit coeptis) of working to bring forth a new order of the ages (novus ordo seclorum).