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Newton was an alchemist. Napier a numerologist. Kepler an astrologer. And Giordano Bruno — Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s poster child martyr for scientists persecuted by irrationally superstitious and corrupt institutions — was an occultist.

The esoteric, the obscure, the fringe, the poetic, and the spiritual permeate the human intellectual landscape, both in the humanities and the sciences1. It’s a major motivator for intellectual investigation. When we come to that epiphany, realizing that our discovery affirms an underlying structural unity of the universe — an instantiation of the beauty of asymptotic change, or fractality, or symmetry, or equilibrium, and that laws seem to be baked deeply into the cosmos — it’s that realization, that glimpse for the mind’s eye, that causes within us a response of such dopaminergic climax and sense of profundity that even the most passionate session of lovemaking pale in its comparison.

To paraphrase the sentiment of a Gnostic text:

Sophia -- whose name means Wisdom, and who was God's divine co-equal and mother of Lilith -- was of such immense transcendental beauty and presence, that God, in his jealous love of her, covered her in the body-cloak of non-existence, never to have her name uttered, so that no mortal could look upon and covet her.

But how does one hide something so omnipresent as **Wisdom**? He thus inverted the *Tree of Life*.

The classic problems of the human condition, too, continue to motivate the scientific mind: the quest for eternal youth and immortality, for man-made sentient creature to aid us in our labors, for a Utopian society / Cornucopia where all resources infinite and people are thus (supposedly) happy, for whether there exists a substance that can turn into any other substance, for whether beings of similar intelligibility with us humans2 exist on other worlds or planes of reality, or for whether super-transcendent intelligence(s) have had some role in the creation or maintenance of our universe.

Whether a Renaissance natural philosopher is using alchemy to derive the philosopher’s stone, or a modern nuclear chemist is trying to miniaturizing nuclear transmutation for 3D-printing, quests of the above type are our intellectual motivators. But there is a tendency in our supposed post-“Enlightenment” climate of scientific and rational rigor to ignore, berate, or at least attempt to justify in some secular sense, a scientist’s interest in these bizarre Occultish ideas that go against the the Enlightenment model of scientific inquiry. In doing so, however, we ignore the underlying unity and composability of human abstraction: fundamental convergences of ideas that refer to the same higher principles of, i.e, symmetry, or man’s place in the universe — missing out on the shoulders of giants to stand on when probing these abstractions qua their nature as abstractions.

The notion that the universe is a hologram, as a theory, is but a drop in the ocean compared to the layers of emanated simulations, embedded virtualized realities, and multifaceted avatarism described in the Bhagavad Gita.

As any good scientist and mathematician knows, the process model-building to make sense of data is as much of a creative process as composing music or writing literature. Thus, could such pre-modern ideas of spiritual, religious, and esoteric origins offer insight into human abstraction qua abstraction, regardless of discipline? Would this enable greater fluidity between abstract ideas of different disciplines? Is there a kind of primordial ontological map of abstract concepts that construct any given discipline?

Often, too, we berate and ridicule these historical quests because of its supposed espousal of pseudoscience or dogmatism, only to be pursuing the same thing in our time. The quest for strong AI, is basically the modern version of the quest for the homunculus, or the Talos, or the Golem — we use Sci-Fi metaphors these days — basically, a man-made fully sentient being. A large part of AI’s history is already pockmarked by ebbs of disillusionment with the entire project because of grandiose promises, and putting our eggs in the dogmatic basket of a single technique like Symbolic AI. Since the AI Winter however, we’ve made some advances in pattern recognition and predictive feedback-control systems — often by using a connectionist correlation model called Artificial Neural Network — but there’s no reason to assume that Neural Networks / Deep Learning techniques will lead to the emergence of artificial sentience (the prerequisite for strong AI), or even that they’ll actually end up solving our hard pattern recognition problems.

While statistical correlation models have been used successfully in recommendation systems, fraud-detection systems, feedback-control systems, and beating world champions at Chess and Go, correlation models are what make superstition, popular horoscopes, pseudoscience, and popular delusions possible in the first place.

My point here isn’t that Artificial Neural Networks aren’t significant or hasn’t contribute to scientific understanding — after all, alchemy and herbalism have contributed to hard scientific understanding of chemistry and medicine — it’s that there’s a lot of “black magic” voodoo involved in Deep Learning that future historians may dismiss this current Renaissance in AI to be nothing more than hyped, superfluous pseudoscience.

That which constitutes our scientific and intellectual validity is always historically, socially, and politically determined, and always from the vantage point of the hindsight inherited from our intellectual forebears.


  1. CF. “Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” – [Carl Sagan] (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#Cosmos:A_Personal_Voyage.281990_Update.29) 
  2. I refrain deliberately from using “intelligent life” here. Assuming humans are even to be considered “intelligent”, the Earth has its share of intelligent life that we haven’t cared much to enter into meaningful dialogue with. 
huesoflife asked you:
Hi I happened upon your tumblr because you liked one of my posts. Your posts are very intellectually stimulating so that makes me wonder, what are some of your favorite books? Also, I noticed that you have a myriad of interests, what major did you pursue in college, if you don’t mind me asking?

Why thank you!

I apologize if this post is a little long, but do hope it will be interesting. Probably best to read it in small bites.

As you may have guessed, since I do have a very wide range of interests, it’s quite a task for me to pick out my favorite books! I do read a lot of books, but I also learn by watching lectures, documentaries, listening to audiobooks, talking to people, and even just taking what I’ve learned and applying it to experiences. I also read academic papers, encyclopedias (not just Wikipedia), or sometimes I’ll just read a chapter from a book. I think how I’ll reply to your question is that I’ll mention at subjects and bodies of work in general. Here goes—

The writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially Beyond Good and Evil, his essay called On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense, and a book called The Gay Science (sometimes translated as The Joyful Wisdom). Unlike many philosophers, Nietzsche’s writings are very accessible for anyone with a pretty good command of whatever language they’re reading him in.

Among many things, Nietzsche’s work centers around highlighting the inherent dissonance between human consciousdesires, reason, and our spontaneous organic nature (actually, for Nietzsche, reason is intimately bound up in being afunction of our organic-nature selves. Same goes with our conscious desires.) Put in modern Cognitive Science/Psychology terms, he’s pointing out the dissonance and the unity of humanexecutive functions, instinct, personality characteristics, habituation, and the subconscious, but also the unity that this internal conflict leads to.

These were revolutionary ideas for the 19th century, hugely influential on Freud and the foundation of modern psychology, and still remains a prominent force in modern philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology. However, I don’t believe Nietzsche’s critique has been fully appreciated or realized by the public at large, or by science.

As well, I do like Nietzsche’s breaking downexceptionalism and the sorts of myths we tell ourselves in order to conceive of such exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is the belief that a particular group is superior because this group is totally separate from underlying patterns and conditions that affect all things — it either wasn’t effect by them, or overcame them wholly. He does a lot of critiquing ofGerman exceptionalism (he was German himself, and German nationalism was starting to pick up as a prominent political force when he was writing in the late 19th century [Germany didn’t become a unified nation until 1871]), Western Christian exceptionalism(especially Protestantism), European exceptionalism and Europe’s imperial heritage, and I think most importantly, Human exceptionalism, and our tendency to try to separate us from Nature and animals.

Yet, another major theme in Nietzsche is the universal nature and diversity of humanity, and the universal nature ofconditions and patterns that make up all organisms, including humans.

His concept of “Philosophical Genealogy” (this warrants a future essay to get into!) is also a major influence on my approach to human history, politics, and even to some extent my approach to what’s cutely being called “Big History”.

Big History is a vast interdisciplinary approach to history that looks over mass time scales of the past 14.5 billion years of the universe. It studies the evolution of physical forces, the elements and substances, the origin of life, biological systems and the biosphere, and in particular how all of this has formed human origins and history. David Christian is the main figure in this discipline — and while I’m not 100% in agreement with all of his work, I do strongly recommend his work, and I think his approach to history is just awesome.

The Critique of Pure Reason (Kritik der reinen Vernunft) by Immanual Kant. This book is a dense read. It was written in the late 18th century, and it’s a critique of the philosophical-scientific traditional as it was known at the time. The main thesis of the book is pointing out that  reason, judgement, sensation, and the sorts of insight we can gather from experimentation and speculation, are entirely dependent on us as a spontaneously organized orgasm. Reason does not exist in a void — reason is conditioned by the limitations of our experience and the mind. There’s a tendency in many of us intellectual inclined to naively value this “pure reason” and totally ignore the spontaneous, non-rational conditions that make all of our experiences possible (including what we can and cannot think about) in the first place.

Of course, the Critique goes much deeper than this. It immensely influenced Albert Einstein, many scientists from the 19th century, and many Quantum scientists of the 20th. It was probably a reading inspired by Kant that got Einstein to seriously think about the nature of the Observer, and how the Observer influences the very experiment he is trying to conduct by just observing it. (Probably also some Hegel in there, and Ernst Mach.)

Unfortunately,  Kant’s work is neglected by scientists these days — which I don’t blame them for, because “professional philosophy” practiced in the academia is becoming a very, very, very pedantic and pretentious subject, filled with useless dogmatic schisms over hair-splitting trifles. There’s also a lot of hyper-specialization going on in the academia, which prevents these multi-disciplinary insights. (See my essay on this subject [link].)

But I do think Kant has some very valuable insight into modern scientific practices and investigations. For instance, we see how much emphasis is placed in science nowadays onsimulation, data-mining, and certain paradigms that neglect the influence of the observer; or how there is a tendency in science to assume a one-to-one congruency of human conception about an observable phenomenon, and with what’s actually happening. We humans — as thinking, sensing beings — are intimately part of the very experiments that we conduct, and the very patterns we try to investigate.

A reading of Kant can give us valuable insight into this… But if you’re not already into philosophy, it’s a *very* time consuming process to go back and read Kant. I don’t recommend it. You’d have to read who he’s reacting to, reinterpret him in his historical context, and view him in the light of recent developments in science and math if you want him to be a gainful read, etc etc. Basically, we need a new commentator to step up and have another look at Kant for 21st century science and math. Maybe that’ll be me in a few years 😉

Writings of Stephen Jay Gould. He does a lot of work on Evolution, especially breaking down myths about evolution (mths both by Creationists, and people who accept evolution). He does a lot to smash this notion of teleology in evolution (the view that things evolve for a purpose), and a lot of valuable insight into human nature, underlying patterns in biology, etc. He’s also a very accessible and fun read — I highly recommend all of his books!

Favorite historians are Oswald Spengler and Ibn Khaldun — not that I think they were entirely right about everything they wrote (hardly!), but their approach to history is revolutionary. They focused on the collective, aggregateresults of human nature, especially human historical and sociological behavior, as something that can be understood in a greater World-System. There is also an understanding of human civilization, or particular kinds of civilizations, as a kind of organism.

As far as literature goes, hmm. Ludimagister has reminded me how much I love Goethe. The Romantics of the early 19th century — I love their seamless mixing of philosophy, mysticism, and science. William Blake, Percy & Mary Shelley,Schiller… Many 19th century poets actually drew a lot from the scientific tradition, like Robert Frost who actually wrote quite a bit about entropy and heat-death (which arrogant English majors don’t even realize!)

Also am quite fond of political writers like Joseph Conrad,George Orwell.  Russian literature, especially Dostoyevsky, Nabokov, Turgenev, Gogol.

Very fond of cyberpunk, certain science-fiction, historical fiction. And I read a lot of old religious texts and mythology.

Second part of your question:

In university, I majored specifically in Archaeology and Philosophy. (Double-major was required at the particular institution)

But I’ve been self-taught in many subjects since a very early age. As a small child, I used to spend hours at a time watch Discover Channel and TLC (back when it was aboutactually learning) on evolution, astronomy, psychology. My parents weren’t into such things, but they were into politics, so I had an early age exposure to political arguments at the dinner table. Slowly, that turned into an interest into philosophy and politics, then into history, I’ve stuck with it since.

Not to discourage others who, but at least in my particular case, university was the least productive learning experience in my entire life.

Update:

Btw, I absolutely love your art. Phenomenal astronomy work, wow, completely awe-inspiring. I highly recommend everyone to check it out! [Link to gallery]

The Decline of Thinking’s Universality:
Against the Hyper-Compartmentalization of Knowledge (or the Hyper-Compartmentalizers)

It may be ironic that a blog which draws heavily from the philosophical tradition would start thus:

Philosophy is dead.[1]

Of course, that’s not a particularly revolutionary idea, and especially not in this day and age. We all know that philosophy has been replaced by hard, solid, objective SCIENCE!, that has no need for the empty, pretentious quibblings of philosophers, who confirm nothing with factual, real, physical evidence…! According the prevailing creation myths of SCIENCE!, no one before Galileo conducted experiments, and all human knowledge was purely based on religious dogma, superstition. It was the Dark Ages, because Rome — the sole guaranteer of Reason and Progress — had fallen to savage invading barbarians and its own opulent corruption. It was the Dark Ages, and life was poor, nasty, brutish and short.[2]

What rationality did exist was what Christian monks working in dungeons and monasteries, hunched over on copying tables, were able to preserve by scraps and bits of unoriginally copying manuscripts from the Greeks and Romans — because Augustine said it was what any good Christian ought to read, since he was such a squealing fanboy for people like Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, etc. And then finally, it took a handful of privileged white men in Western Europe to pull the ‘West’ up from its own bootstraps, out of the Dark Ages, and to dominate the world again, as they had meant to do, since they inherited the Greco-Roman legacy. Meanwhile, the Church burnt anyone at the sake who contradicted its dogma[3], so the ‘West’ had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the brave new world of innovation. In fact, before this “Renaissance” the West was so behind, that they had to learn and ‘recover’ what they historically knew about the Ancients from those fanatical, backward Arabs! Then thanks to these privileged white European men, we discover the world is not flat[4], revolves around the Sun (Heliocentricism), and Chris can finally discover America, the Reformation breaks the clerical stranglehold on PROGRESS!, and the rest (SCIENCE!)history:

^ Above ^ is a paraphrase of a cultural meme we see espoused by standard textbooks, teachers, TV presentations, Joe the In’ernet-Know-all-Tuff-Guy, etc., treating this subject of SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS! (and all the subtext notwithstanding.) Absurd as this narrative is, I’m not going to dwell on it here, as this entire blog is dedicated to smashing such creation myths of PROGRESS (aka positivism).[5]

Now in truth, things were, as they often are, actually a little more complicated. First of all, all knowledge — all SCIENCE! — was considered under the domain of Philosophy. If you were a thinking person — no matter how amateur or professional, no matter how shallowly or profoundly — what you were doing when pondering the universe, human relations, physical phenomena, God’s attributes, etc., all went back to that word: Philosophy.

  • When Galileo disproved prevailing beliefs about Aristotle’s theory of Motion, it wasn’t called Physics — it was called Natural Philosophy.
  • When Copernicus uprooted Geocentricism, it wasn’t called Physics — it was called Natural Philosophy
  • When Newton discovered the principles of gravity, and formulated MATH around this, it wasn’t called Physics — it was still called Natural Philosophy

( I’m just going to pause here and mention that Natural Philosophy was the discipline that is more or less what we would call science nowadays — philosophy concerning in the nature of motion, matter, astronomy, chemistry (shared with alchemy), geology, animals and natural history, etc. )

Intellectuality — the scope of things you would be educated in — was continuous, fluid, and organic. The Educated were well versed in theology, logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, rhetoric, aesthetics, the Classics, politics, history[6], etc., because these were all universally recognized aspects of Knowledge of the Universetwo sides of the same coin — or, better put, different faces on the same die:

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