Thursday, 16 April 2015

A sense of the past

[The following text is an introductory chapter from The Sacred History of Being. The original post was a draft version. This was replaced by the text from the book on October 31, 2015.] 

We can know a great deal about events which occurred a hundred years or two hundred years ago, because we still live in the same cultural orbit. But to understand significant detail after the passage of two or more thousand years is a much more complex issue. Even where there is a great deal of documentation, it is hard to understand what that documentation means. Even simple documents such as lists (and there are lots of those surviving from antiquity) lose almost everything through the loss of their contexts.

I gained a sense of the strangeness of the remote past while at school, where I studied classics, and history, alongside the modern curriculum. Our focus in classics was Roman language and literature, which I found (at that time) very dull. By contrast our history master (an ex-Spitfire pilot) was interested in the more exotic worlds of ancient Greece, the Minoans, and the Byzantine empire. He travelled widely to famous archaeological sites, and many of his classes featured his own slides of these sites, which was not a common feature of history teaching at that time (1967). Art history also was taught mainly with lectures based on slides, so the school was a progressive one. I still remember seeing the strangely shaped Minoan columns for the first time, and the highly decorated interior of the king’s throne room at the palace of Knossos (I now know that this was an imaginative reconstruction by the excavator Sir Arthur Evans, and not the real thing). I also remember the strangeness of the abstracted horns which formed part of the architecture. I also remember seeing slides of ancient altars, with sequences of rectangles on the sides, almost as if representing a sequence of receding doorways, the meaning of which was unfathomable. The question of why you would design an altar in such a way remained with me for decades, without there being any possibility of resolving it.

I became interested in philosophy a bit later on in school, after having realized that the sciences were unable to address certain questions, and I knew that I was interested in exploring these questions. I began to focus more on ancient philosophy, partly because ancient philosophy, produced within the structure of ancient civilization, dealt with some of these questions. And it ought to provide a way in to understanding what was otherwise strange and unfathomable about that world. Connecting the two in this way however, was difficult. The two did not seem to match up terribly well, and some puzzling aspects of the ancient world, including the worship of statues, the practice of sacrifice and divination, omens, magic, and so on, seemed (at the time) to have been hardly discussed by anyone.

I did not neglect modern philosophy however, and I was interested in the interface between physics and philosophy, since I was studying sciences at school. I read old stuff and new stuff. I knew James Jeans’ and Arthur Eddington’s work, as well as books by Fred Hoyle and George Gamow. I knew about quantum uncertainty and Schrodinger’s Cat.   I knew about Einstein, Bohr, Max Planck, Fermi, Heisenberg and Dirac, and so on. So there was a familiarity with the modern notion that the underlying reality of the world was not necessarily what it had seemed to be. In the mid nineteen-seventies I became interested in attempts to show relationships between modern sub-atomic physics and ideas at the core of eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism. Though I remained unconvinced by these attempts. The nature of Eastern religions interested me however, in particular on account of the fact that these explicitly embraced  ideas of unknowability and the uncertainness of things, by contrast with the western tendency to pursue a monolithic understanding of the world; and, in the case of Buddhism, they successfully dispensed with the idea of god altogether.

A chance discovery in a bookshop in the late seventies brought me into contact with George Melhuish’s The Paradoxical Nature of Reality, originally published in 1973. This book argued that many of the problems of philosophy are artefacts of the fact that philosophers are attempting to constrain the nature of reality, and that some of the principal tools of philosophy are at fault, including Aristotle’s laws of thought. He argues that instead of the nature of reality being something which must be subject to these laws, its nature must breach these laws.

I continued my interest in ancient philosophy. I was deeply puzzled by the fact that many of the arguments in Plato’s dialogues end in some kind of failure. The protagonists sometimes move on as if the argument has been successful, by agreeing the fact which was to be demonstrated must be the case, even if it cannot be shown to be true through argument. It almost seemed that the failure of the argument was the point. If they were merely arguments which needed to be improved on (i.e., arguments in the process of development, as if the Academy was somehow a research institution), how was it that in the course of two thousand years, these arguments were still irresolvable?

By 1981, I had discovered Bell’s theorem, which is one based on physical experiments in quantum mechanics. The argument was aired in a famous paper in 1964; the paper suggested strongly that however useful the Aristotelian laws of thought might be for us in understanding our world, nature itself was happy to dispense with them.  [i]  As an article in Scientific American put it in 2009,  [ii]

Our intuition, going back forever, is that to move, say, a rock, one has to touch that rock, or touch a stick that touches the rock, or give an order that travels via vibrations through the air to the ear of a man with a stick that can then push the rock—or some such sequence. This intuition, more generally, is that things can only directly affect other things that are right next to them. If A affects B without being right next to it, then the effect in question must be indirect—the effect in question must be something that gets transmitted by means of a chain of events in which each event brings about the next one directly, in a manner that smoothly spans the distance from A to B. Every time we think we can come up with an exception to this intuition—say, flipping a switch that turns on city street lights (but then we realize that this happens through wires) or listening to a BBC radio broadcast (but then we realize that radio waves propagate through the air)—it turns out that we have not, in fact, thought of an exception. Not, that is, in our everyday experience of the world.

We term this intuition 'locality.'

Bell’s theorem suggests that locality breaks down, at least at the quantum level, for entangled objects. This has serious implications for our understanding of the world. Things which are far apart can behave as if they are in contact. This theorem made a huge impact on my perception of the nature of the world.

I continued to read a great deal. I read a number of books in the History of Ideas, including Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, which was the first to establish the field. This book established the importance of the concept of Being in western civilisation, in philosophy, religion, art and literature, all the way forward from classical Greece in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. This book made it possible once more to discuss in a serious way the philosophers of the Renaissance, who discussed magic and Kabbalah alongside the Platonists. Later philosophers found these discussions deeply embarrassing for the credibility of their subject, and tended to pass over them in silence through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So there was a large gap interrupting the continuity of philosophical thought in the west, and an understanding of its trajectory. I read later writers on the History of Ideas, in particular Frances Yates, and learned much from them. I learned in particular that it was possible to have an understanding of magic as a phenomenon which was dependent on the idea of Being. In all his extensive discussion of magical ideas in antiquity and the Middle Ages, J. G. Frazer did not even toy with this idea.

Something interesting was coming together by this time. If Being was a paradoxical entity, which transcended both the nature and the properties of the existent world, an entity which was essentially unknowable and beyond precise definition, what were the implications of this?

But it was something else that provided the trigger. I’d learned the importance of being able to read iconography within the appropriate context from Frances Yates. As well as reading much ancient near eastern literature I was also looking at seals and sculpture, wall-reliefs and stele. This reading took place in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, and photographic copying at the time was (as everywhere) an expensive item. So I described those images which interested me, whether or not I had any clue to their significance beyond what the captions said about them. I described them in meticulous detail – sufficient detail to include what might have been simply carelessnesses on the part of the craftsman who made the item. After a while I realised I was seeing a pattern in the images. Not in every image, but often enough for it to be worth considering as possibly a repeated and deliberate precision in the workmanship.  This preciseness appeared particularly in images which featured opposed figures, standing around altars, thrones, trees, and other transformative objects. I had not at the time the slightest idea of what this detail - asymmetry - might actually mean, but I recognised that it was intended to convey something. After a while it became obvious that one of the purposes of the asymmetry was to draw attention to the fact that the image indicated that something was happening at the limit of something – whether a supplicant was being introduced to a god by a priest, or an offering of sacrifice was being made to the gods.

Very quickly after this I recognised that there was a range of connected concepts running through Greek and near eastern cultures, all of which depended on the idea of limit. There are parallel concepts around the Mediterranean, most of which were then and still are little discussed in academia. These concepts include, in addition to the idea of limit (and the unlimited), the ideas of completion, perfection, totality, the threshold, the end, the telos (the final cause), and so on. Once you start looking at the way these concepts are used in Greece and the near East, the whole question of the cultural differences between the cultures begins to shift; at first gently, and in the end, dramatically. By 1987 I had begun to understand something of the grammar of these ideas in their cultural contexts, and realised that they were a principal focus of Plato’s interest. It also became possible to see how other aspects of Greek and near Eastern cultures were also driven by an interest in this range of associated concepts.

After studying ancient Greek and philosophy for a year in Edinburgh, I became a student at UCL in early October 1989, studying Ancient History. I studied Near Eastern history in general (Egypt, the Levant, Assyria and Babylonia, Urartu, etc), plus the Akkadian and Sumerian languages, as well as Greek culture and language, and Roman history. My final year dissertation was on the relationship between the Adapa myth and Neo-Assyrian ideas of kingship. 

Part of the reason I was there was to have the opportunity to further explore the cultural context of these ideas, in addition to gaining a disciplined understanding of history as a subject. Another important part of the agenda was the desire to know whether or not I was barking up the wrong tree, which I realised was a possibility. If what I thought was detecting was really there, it might seem puzzling, at least on the face of things, that it had remained a matter of no interest to historians. Martin Bernal’s ‘Black Athena’ published a couple of years beforehand, suggested to me that the operational frame for historians and classicists, built up particularly since the 1840s, might be responsible for their lack of engagement with these elements of the evidence, together with the importation of aspects of the sociological approach at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which determined a focus on less cerebral aspects of the ancient world.

As a leading department of history, the staff were well aware of the possibility that their subject had been blown off course by nineteenth century tendencies, and organised a series of nine seminars devoted to exploring the validity of Bernal’s thesis while I was a student at UCL. I attended eight of them. While at UCL I also attended a postgraduate seminar on the possibility that the Egyptians had some grasp of philosophy, organised by Mark Collier. It was possible to propose this discussion, and get a reasonable audience (of about twenty) to come along. I understood from this seminar, which concentrated mainly on a well-known Egyptian stele, just how far we needed to travel to properly address the question of an idea of Being in the ancient world.

After UCL, I was faced with finding an occupation which would effectively fund further development of the inquiry. I found myself gravitating towards issues of scholarly communication, and ended up living in Bath. A beautiful city, with excellent people, but not a place well furnished with libraries containing texts from the ancient near east. Indeed it was hard to find Greek texts in that city.  This was a time when many important books were published, mostly in the US, which I collected by mail as funds allowed. It was at this time (2004) that I acquired, from the estate of a deceased Dutch scholar, at some expense, the published texts of the State Archives of Assyria series (eighteen volumes), as well as numerous related items.

In late 2004 I began a conversation with Simo Parpola, perhaps the most important of the Assyriological scholars, based in Helsinki, and asked if he could supply me with an offprint of his 1993 paper on the Assyrian sacred tree. He was kind enough to send this to me. I realised very quickly that he had provided a proof of the antiquity of the Jewish Kabbalah, and consequently of the antiquity of the idea of Being. It was perfectly clear that the idea was well formed, and lay at the heart of the Assyrian idea of reality.

I suggested writing a paper aimed at exposing this information to those interested in the history of philosophy. Parpola was kind enough to make suggestions, and to supply a new translation of a significant passage on Assyrian kingship, first (and last) translated in the closing years of the nineteenth century. I redrafted. Parpola made some suggestions about how I might re-focus the paper. I submitted the article to an American journal in 2005, and it was accepted. But I realised in myself, in the course of the conversation with the journal, that some aspects of the article were terminally problematic. I did not follow through with requested citation modifications, and a reduction in length, and abandoned the paper.

In early October 2005 I returned to Edinburgh, after a hiatus of sixteen years.  Between 2006 and 2009 I did little to push the project forward. I thought about it often, but did not write. In January 2010 there was an abortive attempt to draft this book. A draft of the contents was all that was achieved. I began again in January 2011, which effort resulted in the text which is before you now.

[i] Bell, J. (1964)."On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox." Physics 1 (3): 195–200.  Bell's theorem has been called "the most profound in science."
[ii] Scientific American, March 2009 issue.

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