Mandelbrot On The Brain


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Monday, April 22, 2013      1:13 PM

Perhaps our imaginations are Mandelbrot equations that have evolved in our brain matter to follow the line of analog rather than that of awareness—we cease to see the thing and imagine a something that is like the thing, but only in a way—in another way, it is quite different—and the biochemical equation fills in the blank. Do you know how a thing is just beyond your mind’s awareness? When you can feel it there, lurking under the scrim of conscious memory, and it isn’t that you need more time—it’s just that you have to re-orient your mind to finally grab ahold of the thing, the word, the idea, the, the,..

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“    That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.”

–        EAST COKER

(No. 2 of ‘Four Quartets’)

T.S. Eliot

I see all these fantasy-based series on Syfy and HBO—and the recent spate of fairytale-themed movies, ‘Snow White and the Huntsman”, “Jack the Giant Killer”, etc. and then just now I’m watching the made-for-TV TNT Movie of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic, ‘The Mists of Avalon’. And I realize that we have to embrace magical thinking.

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I’m not saying it is the truth, I’m just saying we have to embrace it—as much as we need to simulate our animal-selves’ existence (exercise and diet) to keep our bodies healthy, we also need to recognize the importance that mystery played in our earlier civilizations—with regard to our mental and emotional well-being.

Prior to the Enlightenment, there was primitivism and religious devotion—no third option. No one ‘knew’ anything, the way we think of ‘knowing’ something, today. Everything was up for grabs—a demon might chase you; a witch might enchant you; you could fall asleep for forty years and return to a home that has nearly forgotten even the memory of you; you might be imprisoned within a stone—or there might be a magic sword in there, instead. God could stop the Sun in the sky—and no one dared question it. That one little problem was actually what began our descent into businesspersons—astrologers had been observing the sky’s signposts for millennia—even the Old Testament was young compared to Astrology. Then came telescopes, and before you know it—well, now it’s out there.

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You can persecute stubborn-minded astronomers for a few centuries but, in the end, with planetary observations that stretched back to the earliest records of civilization, supported by magically-enhanced vision via the telescope, the truth was in the math for anyone to see—and then a bunch of other things, and then the Enlightenment happens. People begin to see that there is a certainty in the world that even the most terrible magician can’t refute—basically, they accepted arithmetic as more axiomatic than faith. One cannot make measurements of magic, and one cannot allow magic in mathematics.

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But even this would not have been a problem if we hadn’t reached a point where literacy and public discourse could root out the smoke and mirrors of magical belief, and shine a light on, —well, on bullshit, to put it bluntly. And in many ways, particularly in terms of human rights and democracy, the routing of magical thinking from our daily lives is a great blessing. However.

Religion is part of the old, magical-thinking-type way—and there are lots of people who would get angry at that statement for two reasons: one, their religion isn’t some hocus-pocus Las Vegas magician’s act!—and two, their religion transcends mathematics. So, we find ourselves very prettily stuck in a barrel—we can either drop the barrel to stand in the naked truth, or we can tote that barrel around while we try to lead a sensible life. I’m for dropping it, but then I’ve never been much of a stickler for form. And form is nothing to sneeze at.

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T.S. Eliot was known to be very attracted to rites and rituals—his conversion to Anglican was as much to regain some magic in his life as it was a shunning of agnosticism. He called it ‘meaning’, but I call it ‘magic’. As a lifelong atheist, I can attest to the emotional toll it takes to turn ones back on fairy tales. If I could make the slightest pretense of faith, I would work its last nerve—let me tell you—‘magic’?—much better way to go through life—illusory, vestigial, irrational?—of course. But, still, the way our minds are designed to work. Social interaction loses its coherence in a fully rationalized society—everything is a field of study but nothing is mysterious, unknown, or inconclusive. I know there are sub-atomic physics theories and cosmological theorems that will always glimmer in the distance—for that small group of people who can climb to the ridge of that mental mountain range. But for the rest of us there’s little more than electricity, clean water, medical insurance, and job security. There is no cathedral being built; there’s no crusade to fight against an exotically unfamiliar foe; there are no barren deserts for mad monks to wander in.

There is only the endless struggle against the brute animal that lives behind our eyes and the craven junky in our guts that’s willing to walk into traffic for something just out of reach and the hysterical, traumatized self-hater that’s always trying to break into our hearts.

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We need charismatic diversions, periods of wandering and wondering and being in awe. We need secrets—secrets kept from us and secrets we keep to ourselves. Any good therapist will tell you that is no way towards a healthy emotional life—that is the sort of thing that allows you to be manipulated, repressed, and overwrought. Which is true. The fact that we may need it to satisfy some other lack still remains, healthy or not, true or not, scientific or not.

Truth is truth and science is science—but that doesn’t make us happy, by itself. We need some blissful ignorance, perhaps a daily ride on a big roller-coaster—anything that will bring us to the face of eternity, even for a moment. Somewhere we can laugh in the teeth of a fiery dragon or soar on a magic carpet. Our species has spent all but the last few centuries feeling fear, hunger, lust, wonder, and curiosity—do we really think we can be okay with a desk job and a cable TV?

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