The Nature of Truth II

March 5, 2017 § 3 Comments

The Sandman Postman

I want to add a couple of supplemental comments to yesterday’s essay entitled “The Nature of Truth”.   Last night, as I slept, I received a telepathic message from some Indians who occupied most of the American continent when European intruders and explorers arrived and began populating it.  The message was an angry response to my discussion of the cultural result of the advent of automobiles and trains as dominant means of transportation.

I described this cultural change as a result of the expanded area in which American people could easily travel.  I compared it with the wagon and buggy days when that area was often a hundred miles or less from a person’s birthplace.[Probably an overestimate of the distance.]

The message I received from a delegation of Indians was, ” Your experience was different from ours.  If those white people stayed within a hundred miles of where they were born, who the hell were all those people who showed up all over our hunting grounds, killing buffalo and hunting us like wild game, spreading smallpox and other diseases to kill those of us whom they didn’t shoot?  They damn sure were more than a hundred miles from their birthplaces.  They went everywhere.”   I received his message because the space/time/continuum is inoperative when you sleep.

The Urge to Move

When I awoke, I realized I had failed to take into account what I learned from another professor at UT:  Walter Webb, who spent most of his career documenting and analyzing the American frontier.  So, I now wish to add a couple of qualifications to yesterday’s essay.

First, the European immigrants who populated the American continent brought with them a cultural understanding of territorial rights based on private ownership of specific fixed tracts of land.   They saw America as a giant store where land was free for the taking.  And, because the economy to which they were accustomed was primarily one based on farming and ranching, their goals were to find, occupy and establish a home on a specific tract.   They were explorers and seekers but their goals were to settle down on their own property.

In other words, my argument yesterday was based on the mental reactions of those immigrants to achieving their goals.  It did not mention or acknowledge their motivation to travel to the land they sought.  It was this latter inclination that caused their culture to prove devastating to the culture of the Indians.

Most of the early American immigrants were from European countries, including England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.  Land ownership in those countries was generally controlled by various levels of royalty based on grants from kings and queens.  Most of the population worked on the land based on various systems of serfdom.

Given these conditions, there were powerful temptations motivating those without personally owned land to immigrate to America and begin a quest for a place to settle.  When I wrote that, once they found and settled on some land, where they raised their families, they typically were not motivated to stray far from home, I was referring to land owners, not land seekers.  Also, when the automobile and train replaced the wagon and buggy, the frontier was closed.  The last displacement of the Indians occurred in Oklahoma early in the 1900’s .  The wagon and buggy displacement began about the same time, as Henry Ford began putting Americans behind the wheel of a black Model T Ford.

The Bhuddist Version of Jung’s Collective Unconscious 

Another thing I neglected to mention in yesterday’s effort:  One phenomenon I find interesting is the way ideas and frameworks for analyzing them seem to emerge, disappear and, later, sometimes centuries later, re-emerge clothed in different philosophical language but, still, very similar.

In yesterday’s essay I wrote about Carl Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.  I neglected to mention a corresponding idea based on a Buhddist doctrine.  I don’t pretend to be a serious student of Buddhist theology but, many years ago, i read about a Buddhist doctrine to which I was attracted.  Some Buddhists believe when a person dies, a spark representing his being returns to a limitless repository of all life.  And when a person is born he is vivified by a spark from that same source.  The nature of the new being is affected by the manner in which its previous life as another being lived.  This is not reincarnation, as in Hindu theology.  It does teach that successive episodes of life on Earth and the behavior of the person who lives it determine whether the next episode will be closer to or further from the ultimate end of the process, when a person reaches Nirvana, described in the reading I have done as “the absence of desire”.

I understand this as a form of immortality.  I am not a believer in any form of religion but I have spent time thinking about religious ideas.  Several decades ago Beverly and I attended  a few days of lectures in Tarrytown New York.  One of the lecturers was Joseph Campbell.  He spent a lifetime writing and talking about the religions and myths and folk tales of different cultures.  I was able to talk to him about religion and immortality.  He told me, “Don’t be bothered because no form of religion suits you.  No one knows anything about immortality.  Different religions choose different metaphors to express their choices of beliefs in ideas that are beyond actual human knowledge.  So, you can choose your own metaphor, one that satisfies you.  You are not bound by the choices of others.”

Like everyone else, I have no personal knowledge of any truth about immortality.  I long ago decided I could not embrace the ideas based on claims of divine disclosure to a preacher or priest.  I do believe it is natural for human beings, including me, to speculate about what happens after they die.   I have accepted the probability that nothing happens but I have no more basis for that assumption than for any other.  So, I have found Campbell’s advice to be reassuring and comforting.

The Buddhist  idea is attractive to me because it is not hopeless, it does not depend on hostility toward any other religious idea and it resembles the ideas of Carl Jung, whose ideas are interesting and are based on actual scientific research.

Finally, as I write this I realize that some readers may conclude that I have achieved the pinnicle of hypocrisy:  The hypocritical doubter.  All I can say is that I have never claimed consistency, only honesty.

PS:  I have revisited yesterday’s “The Nature of Truth” and found several grammatical mistakes, misspellings and some sloppy sentence structure.  I have made corrections I hope will make it more understandable.  I know this is too late for most of my readers but it , at least, eases my embarrassment.

The Nature of Truth

March 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

I attended a meeting this week where a close friend of mine introduced me as a believer in relativism as distinguished from truth as an immutable concept from which any aberration is, by definition, an error at best and a sin at worst.  My friend’s intention was to provoke a discussion.  He succeeded.

I had not been asked to defend myself on this ground for several decades.  I once practiced law with a lawyer who was the product of a Jesuit education.  He delighted in baiting me into arguments about this subject.

I have an advantage in these arguments because I don’t recognize any idea as permanent or immutable except those based on mathematics and physical science [2+2 is now, always has been and always will be 4, if those symbols are expressed in the decimal system].  So far as concerns physical science, the truth concept is more complicated.  Scientific principles are always stated with a caveat  warning label reading, “until proven otherwise”.  This caveat  came in handy when Einstein proved that light does not always travel in a straight line,   related velocities depend on a relationship with the speed of light and space is curved, not rectangular or circular.

Despite these complications, scientific discipline insures a kind of objective reliability because its principles must be reproducible, regardless of the instutional context in which they are accessed.  The laws of physics are the same in a Catholic cathedral as in an opium den.  The same is true for Chemistry’s Periodic Tables.

Relativism, for me, is not frightening.  In fact, as a trial lawyer I had no trouble with the duty of opposing lawyers to argue with equal vigor and enthusiasm that each of two opposing  propositions is true.  I did not see that as evidence that lawyers are liars for hire.  Their skill is to frame facts favorably for their clients’ interests. There are many examples of this phenomenon.  The Civil War settled the most significant conflict of this kind:  The South contended that natural law protected their property right to own slaves.  The North contended natural law protected black people from being deprived of their liberty without due process.  Before the war overruled him, Mr. Justice Taney, in his Dred Scott decision,   argued that natural law favored the South’s position.

The Concepts Which Frame My Judgements and Perceptions of Reality

In college the ideas of Thorstein Veblen made sense to me.  He was a rebellious dissenter from most of the underlying principles offered to justify capitalism.   He spent his academic life teaching and writing about the logical faults and hypocrasies offered to defend capitalistic methods of distributing wealth.

I learned about Veblen in two semesters of a class taught by Clarence Ayres, a follower of Veblen.  He taught me to  view social and economic activity as composed of two different but related forces:  technology and institutions.  Technology is the dynamic force that results from human curiosity and creativity.  It drives and shapes the way humans engage in work, play and form relationships.  Institutions change in  in  response to technology, but they lag behind technological changes.  Thomas S. Kuhn’s long essay, The Structure of Scientific  Revolutions, describes elegantly the way these two forces interact.  Here is a link:

As I read and thought about these ideas, it became apparent, at least to me, there was no place in that analysis for truths unaffected by these forces.  The most powerful institution in our western culture has been and is religion in all its thousands of forms.  The Roman Catholic Church, relying on its historical roots in Greek philosophy as interpreted by Thomas Aquinas  as well as Jewish/Christian religious teachings and writings, is a major defender of absolute truth and a system of morality based on that concept.

The Church’s conflict with Galileo is a good and, I think, a fair example of the Church reacting to the relativistic ideas I discussed above.  Galileo’s study and telescopic exploration enabled him to see that the Earth revolved around the Sun, an idea in conflict with the Church,  which believed the Earth to be the center of the  solar system.  When Galileo tried to explain the basis for his research, he was threatened with the horrors of the Inquisition.  He recanted but was imprisoned for the rest of his life in his home, where he continued to study and write.

I mention this well known episode because it illustrates the way truth is impacted by technology.  Galileo did not learn how the solar system worked because of divine revelation.  He did so because Hans Lippershey, a Dutch scientist , invented a serviceable telescope.  Technology illuminates  the darkness protecting institutional “truth”.  The process never ends because curiosity is hardwired in our brains.

Stephen Crane has captured this idea in a short verse:

I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never — ”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

Our Brain is a Universe

Because we are human beings our universe is perceived with, and is subject to the limitations of. our brains.  We are not capable of experiencing “reality” as it is perceived by other species of life.  For example, we can guess, based on the structure of their hives, the bees do not perceive reality as 90 degree angles.  A bee-probably  functions efficiently in a “reality” that is structured as a hexagon.   The eyesights of an eagle as well as a fly are fundamentally different from ours.  It seems likely to me that those creatures see a reality different from the one we perceive.  If this is true, then their “truth”, based on their reality is likely different from ours.

In the same way, when, through our technology, we change the way we can perceive reality, it seems obvious to me that our conceptions of morality and reality also change.  For example, when the wagon and buggy were replaced by the automobile and the railroad,  we changed the way we regarded the sexual relationships that affect the process by which we choose mates.  The size of the available choices increased because the distance  from our birthplaces increased.  The rituals of courtship changed because they included interactions with a much larger and more varied set of people.  The days of people on farms living their lives within a hundred miles of their birthplaces were over.

This steadily increasing mobility has resulted in a culture that bears practically no resemblance to the one in which our grandparents and great grandparents lived.  And, it seems to me that when culture changes, cultural norms also change.  Our literature is filled with stories about these changes.  Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is only one example that illustrates this fact.  People “going native” are common themes of fiction as well as accounts of characters changing their attitudes after becoming involved with and aware of cultures different from their own.

In our own lifetimes, we have seen a dramatic change in the cultural attitudes toward black people, homosexuals and women.  I think these cultural changes are accompanied by changes, not only in our moral judgments, but also in the way we perceive the world.  Of course, I acknowledge  these changes do not occur at the same rate for all of us.  But I don’t think the cultural norms claimed to be “natural” and immutable were universally accepted.  That is the reason those “norms” had to be so vigorously defended and imposed with the force of law and threats of eternal damnation.

The Structure of Brain Change

The process and mechanics of how our brains make changes in these fundamental principles is a matter of endless fascination to me.  I don’t pretend to know or understand this subject but my amateur exploration has convinced me it involves brain science, psychology and religiosity.

My impression of brain science is that the extent of acquired and taught behavior and attitudes is steadily decreasing and the extent and importance of genetically hard wired influences, the result of evolutionary endowment, is correspondingly increasing.. I no longer think of my “mind”, my “soul”, my “body”  and my “brain” as being separate parts   or places somewhere inside my skin.  I believe my entire self is the result of a constant total interaction of my brain connected by neural networks to my entire body.  Consequently,  what I think and feel and how I react to my environment is a function of this totality, as all parts of it constantly interact.  I also believe that we know only a very small part of the way our brain, as it interacts with the rest of us, works or is capable of working.  I think, with respect to thenature of our brain’s capacity, we are like Columbus when he stepped ashore on to an insignificant island in the Caribbean. little  did he know that he had stumbled on to a vast continent with potential of which he could not have conceived.   If we survive long enough I think we will discover ways our brains work that will fundamentally change the way we interact with each other and with the universe.

The Lakoff Effect

My opinion about this was affected when, thanks to my daughter, I read a book by George Lakoff, The Political Mind.  This linguist has written many books about the way our mind works,  To vastly oversimplify his basic thesis:  When we confront an occasion requiring a choice, we make it instantly, based on  previous wiring in our brain.  Then, a nanosecond later, we rationalize the justification for our reaction.  These reactions as well as the rationalizations have been acquired by repetative exposure to similar confrontations in the past.  That means we can change our way of thinking  the same way we learn to type:  By practicing making the connection between a letter and the movement of our finger.

The result of this analysis is:  In order to change reactions, e.g. a political judgment, it is necessary to expose a person, over and over and over, to a particular judgment and its rationalization. According to Lakoff, and he has convinced me, the Tea Party succeeded because it selected a particular way of perceiving political activity and created thousands of groups all over America where these  ideas were expressed, without any deviation or distraction, for over ten years.  That is the way the Tea Party swallowed the Republican Party and changed it from conservatism within the boundaries of traditional American politics to its present form as an uncompromising  combination of religious fundamentalism and devotion to unregulated corporate domination.

Lakoff contends that Clinton style center left political “triangulation” will no longer work.  He argues we must undertake the same kind of brain rewiring used by the Tea Party.

Carl Jung

Carl Jung was a follower of Sigmund Freud.  Freud developed the idea that we have a subconscious mind in addition to our conscious mind.  He was a doctor and his focus was on methods of treating patients with particular mental problems.

Jung was also a doctor and he used Freud’s techniques but, in addition, he postulated an unconscious mind in addition to Freud’s bi cameral theory.  Jung believed this unconscious mind was the repository of the collective consciousness of the billions of human beings who inhabited our planet after separating themselves from other species in the evolutionary process.  He based this thesis on a painstaking and wide ranging study of myths and folktales which were part of primitive cultures.  He found commonality among these myths and folktales in primitive  cultures regardless of whether there had been any contact or interaction between them.

He therefore postulated a medium of communication  between primitive cultures other than physical contact.  He theorized the existence of a collective unconscious.  According to Jung, this collective unconscious was populated with what he called archetypes.  He identified personas like “The Wise Old Man”; “The Sage” , “The Wizard” et al..  There is a book called The Red Bookˆ that lists and describes many of these archetypes.  Jung believed our brains contain this collective history in our unconscious and that its  presence affects the framework of our perceptions of reality.

    Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian writer who wrote a series of books in the 1960’s and 70″s about the way the form of communication affects the thinking patterns of its viewer or user.  One of his books, The Gutenburg Galaxy, analyzed the way the printing press changed the way people thought .  His insight was that receiving information in a totally controlled medium, like a book, by reading, line by line, from one side of the page to the other, was a fundamentally different experience from receiving information visually, like a picture or spoken or sung words or songs.  His books were written as television was beginning to dominate public forms of information.

As I read and thought about McLuhan’s ideas, I concluded that, by switching from print to TV and, later, to digital pictures on iPhones, iPads and other forms of computers, we were returning to the culture and mores of civilization that existed for millions of years before the advent of the printing press.  During that time, and later for much of the world’s inhabitants who did not have access to TV or computers, the campfire, the cave, the tavern , the church or the meeting house, tent or tepee served as the TV and the internet consisted of myths and stories recounted and repeated, from generation to generation in social  gatherings.

As McLuhan explained, this reversion from print to picture changed the reception of information from an individual, rational experience to a mass emotionally experienced reaction to broadcast and telecast performances.  He predicted, and subsequent evens have affirmed, this change has enabled demagogues and skilled manipulators to evoke fear and emotions that  threaten the Constitutional democracy we enjoy.  The truth, to return to the theme of this essay, is no longer a matter of rational thought and reason.  The truth has become the consensus of brain sponges. trained through repetitive  exposure to visual and oral stimuli, to react emotionally; not individually after rational contemplation.

We are back to ancient Rome when tyrants ruled with bread and circuses.  Our bread is the false promise of prosperity and our circus is our television set.  Orwell’s 1984 has creeped into our lives, quietly,  wrapped in the veneer of entertainment, and bastardized our language, captured our politics and disempowered our ability to resist.


To summarize this effort: Our beliefs, attitudes, conceptions of morality – the qualities that fashion who we are – do not result from our acceptance or rejection of some specific rules and perceptions of the truth.  It seems to me that what is true at any given time depends on the context of technological and institutional forces that affect the nature of our culture.  As I contemplate the history of these forces and the significance of the changes in the way culture perceives truth, I am unable to discern or imagine any meaningful system of timeless truths unaffected by those changes.

Is there a timeless truth that murder is wrong?  In our system, the answer is “Yes” unless it  is done in self-defense; not self=defense in reality, but self-defense as perceived by the killer.  And unless it is done by an armed peace officer; not only if the victim was doing anything illegal; but if the officer thought the victim was  doing, or was about to, or was running or walking away from, having done something illegal, provided the illegal act was one classified as sufficiently serious to warrant deadly force, or if the officer thought it was that kind of illegal act; or was nor responding to the officers’s command to stop or was a threat to the safety of the officer.or was perceived by the officer to be a threat to his safety . . . .   I have not exhausted this subject  but I hope my reader can understand that, to me, it is nonsense to say that an immutable truth is that murder is wrong.  This  Byzantine  thicket of nuance and exceptions is only true in our system of justice  Every  country has its own rules and, without being sure, I have every reason to believe the justice systems of other countries are at least as complex as ours.

I cannot see that searching for and identifying universal timeless truths is likely to benefit anyone except those like, Mr. Justice Taney, who are arrogant enough to believe that their  beliefs are  coincidentally  and  miraculously coterminous with Natural Law and absolute truth.



Women of Wisdom

December 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

I have a treasured granddaughter who occasionally shares with me an item she finds that appeals to her rich and adventurous intellectual life.  A few weeks ago, she sent me a copy of an essay entitled Women of Wisdom which I found interesting.  I tried to post a link to it on my Facebook page but, for some reason, the link didn’t work.  This represents a second try at offering  these ideas to the meagre audience for my musings.

This essay probably will not appeal to some.  It’s like tequila and tamales, an acquired taste.  This is not a required course.  But, for those of you who might enjoy these ideas, here is the essay:


Women of Wisdom

Linda S. Smith February 2002


When I was 13 years old, my family moved from rural Michigan to inner city Detroit. It was the middle of the school year, I was in the seventh grade and it was 1950. I was immediately identified as a “hick,” I wore hightop boots instead of saddle shoes and, unlike the other kids, I had never ridden on a streetcar or swum in a swimming pool. The kids teased about everything from the way I talked to my wild, curly hair. I was relieved when school let out for the summer and determined to learn how to be a city kid. I managed to make friends with a few girls in my neighborhood and near the end of the summer three of us decided to form a gang. When school started again, four other girls and I had become the WW Gang. The meaning of WW—one of the many secrets shared by members only—was Women of Wisdom. As the school year progressed our little group grew to about nine girls and we got tougher and more daring. By the ninth grade WW was very popular and we even had a few “rumbles” with girl gangs from other neighborhoods.

How we came up with the name Women of Wisdom is a mystery and why we called ourselves “women,” is beyond me. In my study of Jungian psychology and the Goddess, I came upon one possible explanation for this strange name for a girl gang.

According to Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes, a model of the ancient goddesses exists in the collective unconscious and can be activated in the consciousness of individuals. I suspect the Goddess of Wisdom inserted herself into my consciousness years ago and whispered the name “Women of Wisdom.” And I believe she has been guiding my life for a long time now as well as the lives of many other women. I am pleased to see so many women joining the W.W. club in the past decade. This year the 9th Annual Women of Wisdom Conference in Women’s Spirituality is being held in Seattle. i

According to Christian theologian Beatrice Bruteau “The presence of the Goddess herself has never departed from her holy place in our consciousness, and now as we enter what many feel to be a “new age,” we sense that the Goddess is

© Linda Smith 2008. All rights reserved.


somehow making her way back to us. But in just what guise is so far unclear.” ii And Merlin Stone, author of When God Was A Woman, agrees:

There is no question in my mind that the Goddess is reawakening. And as she rises, we learn more and more about what it is to be women. We have reclaimed role models of women as wise, courageous, creative at the highest levels, as healers and physicians, as architects and builders, as the inventors of written language and so much more. The ancient images of the Goddess have allowed us to reconstruct core concepts of the feminine principle that would not have been possible without knowing of them. …This interest has grown primarily from within the women’s movement, as women began to question what kept us from doing what we really wanted to do. iii

Jungian psychology offers a useful map for exploring what is meant by the “return of the Goddess” and what this has to do with the developmental process of the female psyche today. One of Carl Jung’s greatest contributions is the notion of the collective unconscious and the continual evolution of human consciousness. According to Jung, none of our personal experiences cease to exist. Those experiences that do not make it into the conscious level or are forgotten or repressed, for whatever reason, are stored in the personal unconscious. However, in addition to the personal unconscious there is a portion of the human psyche, which is not dependent upon personal experience at all. The individual is linked, not only with the past events of this lifetime, through her personal unconscious but also with the past of the species and before that with the whole of the organic and conscious evolution, through the collective unconscious. iv

The contents of the collective unconscious are called archetypes. The word ‘archetype’ means an original model after which other similar things are patterned. According to Jung, “There are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution, not in the forms of images filled with content, but at first only as forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action.”v

It is very important for a correct understanding of Jung’s theory of archetypes that archetypes are not to be regarded as fully developed pictures in the mind. They


are more like outlines or patterns that need filling in. “A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it becomes conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience.” vi

The archetypes are inherent patterns or predispositions in the human psyche. The difference between archetypal patterns and activated archetypes may be compared to “blueprints” in seeds. Growth from seeds depends on the conditions of the soil and the climate, the presence or absence of certain nutrients and loving care or neglect of a gardener. Under optimal conditions, the full potential in the seed is realized.

The Goddess or the feminine principle vii exists as an archetype in the collective unconscious. It can be activated in individual women and when enough of us grow into our full potential, the feminine consciousness of the collective will awaken. This is what is meant by the return of the Goddess. The question is, how is this archetype to be activated? How can we as women activate that guiding pattern at the core of our being?

The Feminine Principle

The stories that make up the myths of the ancient world contain the patterns of human becoming. All of the world mythologies are rich in stories of goddesses but in order to understand their relevance to our lives today we need to read these stories by shifting levels, from the letter of the word to the inner meaning. The pattern and structure of the feminine psyche or soul is revealed through an esoteric understanding of the ancient goddesses. Once we learn to recognize the patterns of our own developmental process we become more conscious of the potentials within us — potentials that, once tapped, are sources of spirituality, wisdom, compassion, and action. Activating archetypes long abandoned to the collective unconscious can energize us and give us a sense of meaning and authenticity. viii

When the goddesses and their attributes were assimilated, trivialized, and demonized, at the beginning of the patriarchal era, women had nothing to identify with. In order to participate in the return of the Goddess and fully embody the


wisewoman archetype we need, according to Jean Bolen, “to usher in another round of consciousness-raising, this time to challenge negative stereotypes of older women and understand the relationship between the fate of goddesses and the treatment of women, the effect of the absence of a sacred feminine on women’s spirituality, and the theological basis of patriarchy.“ix

The Great Goddess in all her many aspects was once part of myth and religion. She literally embodied the Feminine Principle. The Great Goddess was not an abstraction but was visible in the world of nature and the lives of individual women. With the development of patriarchal culture, the climate was no longer suitable for the continued growth and maturation of the Goddess in this world and she withdrew into the background. In Jungian terms, the feminine archetypes became less conscious, less active, and became latent patterns in the collective unconscious. These latent patterns are waiting to be reimagined and made a conscious part of ourselves.

Archetypes are like riverbeds, which dry up when the water deserts them, but which it can find again at any time. An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed. x

The feminine principle has been recognized by humanity in various aspects. In ancient times she was the source of life, the sustainer, the healer, the enlightener, the one who receives us in death, and the giver of immortality. She has been sought after as the inspiration of love, the image of beauty, and the object of desire. She has been subordinated to male divinities, relegated to a position of helpmate, the relative and supporting role appropriate to a secondary and derived being. In this guise she easily became the scapegoat for the ills and evils of humanity, the personification of temptation, sensuality, and sin. Her essence has even been reduced to passivity, irrationality, and darkness. And then redeemed by a positive appreciation of the dark, the irrational, and the unconscious which is said to be a necessary complement to the light, the rational, and the conscious. xi

These descriptions, characterizations, and projections do not get to the


underlying meaning of the feminine principle. As the archetype makes it way into consciousness it is colored and shaped by the experiences of the culture in which the conscious individual lives. But the archetype itself is timeless. The root meaning or the identifying quality of the feminine or femininity is not a set of characteristics, qualities, or behaviors but a process of transformation or initiation.

Long before Christian theologians articulated the divine as the holy trinity of father, son, and holy spirit, many Western cultures worshipped the Great Goddess in triple form usually designated as Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Although there are similarities in these two triune expressions of the divine, unlike the Christian trinity, the triple goddess functions as a symbol of the divine that reflects women’s experience in a way that the father-son-holy spirit triad emphatically does not. xii


The world’s mythologies are filled with triple goddess images, but perhaps the most familiar in the West is the story of Demeter and Persephone. This myth served as the basis for initiation rites of Eleusis. Well established by the seventh or sixth century BCE, the Eleusianian Mysteries were for a thousand years the center of inner religious life. xiii

Although this story about the separation and reunion of Mother and daughter that forms the basis for the mysteries is said to date back to Neolithic times xiv it was first put into alphabetic writing by Homer in the seventh century BCE, well into the patriarchal era. According to Homer’s version, Persephone is out gathering flowers with her companions when Hades appears and carries her off to the Underworld. Persephone screams but the only one to hear her is Hekate. Persephone’s Mother, Demeter, who is responsible for the fruitfulness of the earth, is filled with grief and stops being fruitful. When Demeter learns that Persephone has been abducted by Hades, her grief turns to anger. She leaves Olympus and wanders in disguise among people seeking her daughter. The crops fail and earth becomes barren. Eventually Demeter turns to Hekate who consoles Demeter and advises her to seek the truth. Demeter goes to the Sun who tells her that Persephone is in the Underworld. Hekate


helps her find the “way down” to that realm where Demeter visits her daughter who is called Kore in the Underworld. As Demeter and Persephone make their way home their passage is lit by the torch of Hekate. Since Kore has eaten a seed of the pomegranate (fruit of the Underworld), she is forced by cosmic law to return to the Underworld for a third portion of each year. While Kore dwells in the Underworld, Demeter decrees that nothing on earth can thrive.

Persephone does not return the same as when she went, a young girl gathering flowers, she returns as a Queen laden with the riches of the Underworld. Hekate greets Persephone/Kore with much affection. In Homer’s account, this part of the story ends with the rather mysterious statement, “And from that day on that lady (Hekate) precedes and follows Persephone.”

Some feminist scholars xv suggest that there was very likely an earlier, pre- patriarchal version of this myth in which Persephone chooses of her own volition to enter the Underworld rather than being abducted by Hades. This allows for an analysis of the Goddess archetype as it functions independently of patriarchal interpretations. Whether the Underworld journey is undertaken as a result of abduction or personal choice, the myth can serve a healing function for women who have either ventured of their own accord to the deepest recesses of their own consciousness or to the darkest realm of society, or who have been traumatically transported to that condition through acts of violence or abuse condoned by patriarchy. xvi

Interpretations of this ancient story as descriptive of the development of the feminine psyche and the initiation into feminine mysteries usually focus on three aspects of the Goddess archetype: the Maiden (Kore), Mother (Demeter), and Crone (Hekate). But what happened to the girl gathering flowers with her “companions”?

The Nymph. Persephone’s companions are often referred to as “Nymphs” or nature spirits. Persephone herself is the daughter of earth and thus is a nature spirit. The Nymph could be considered the first stage in the human evolution of
spirit into matter—the Nymph is the “soul’s chrysalis of flesh and matter.” xvii Interestingly, the term ‘Nymph’ also refers to the young of an insect undergoing metamorphosis. xviii Persephone is a Nymph ready for the metamorphic journey to the


Underworld and back.
If we look at this story as a map of the process of feminine psychic

development, Persephone as Nymph is the first stage in the process. Today we might say she is our psychic or spiritual “inner child.” She is an instinctual creature, playful and sensual. As a psychic structure, the Nymph bridges this life and what came before – in the same way the Nymph phase of the insects’ metamorphic process is the bridge between two different biological structures. She is the structure, which gives us access to information gathered by our ancestors useful to our basic functioning in this lifetime. Just as the Goddess is both immanent and transcendent, the Nymph belongs to the world of spirit and also is a creature of Earth. This aspect of our psyches gives us the possibility of profound union with nature. As spirits of nature, the “Nymphs” were believed to embed their souls forever in certain parts of the natural world: there were water Nymphs, tree Nymphs, mountain Nymphs, and Nymphs who dwelt in the earth, the sea, or Fairyland. xix The activation of this aspect of the Goddess archetype may be part of the impetus for ecological feminism.

The Maiden. When Persephone, the Nymph, is separated from her mother and enters the Underworld, which is also called Hades, she is called Kore. The word Kore in Greek means “Maiden” and ‘Hades’ comes from a Greek root means “hidden,” “unseen,” or “unknown.” Two important psychic processes are a work here. First there is the separation and reunion of Mother and daughter. Secondly there is the trip into a hidden and unknown world.

The separation of Mother and daughter and their reunion is a cosmic or collective event, not only a personal experience. In the myth the separation creates the change of seasons – prior to Persephone’s journey there was only growth and renewal. This cosmic event signals a collective shift in consciousness much like the story of the Garden of Eden.

In ancient times becoming a Maiden is an initiation into the “Blood Mysteries.” The Nymph becomes a Maiden when she has her first menstrual period. The Blood Mysteries are part of a world still deeply in touch with nature, a correspondence between phases of the moon and the Nymph, Maiden, Mother, and Crone can also be made. In modern times we tend to focus more on the emotional and


mental aspects of this developmental phase we call adolescence although the physical level can never be ignored. This correspondence between our biology and our consciousness does not limit what we can do physically or how well we think, but it does gives us the potential for a profound relationship with nature and the cosmos.

The Nymph comes into life and separates from the Mother, the Great Goddess, the source of all life. Now, as an independent agent, she is a Maiden, on her own in an unknown world. In modern terms, the Maiden aspect of our psyche emerges when we began to differentiate, become individuals, make boundaries, and learn to focus our attention.

In psychological language the Underworld refers to the collective unconscious, “The living matrix of all our unconscious and conscious functionings, the essential structural basis of all our psychic life.”xx It is here we first meet Wisdom. The journey to the Underworld is a journey into the collective wisdom of humanity. This is represented in the myth by the treasures Kore brings with her when she returns and is reunited with Demeter, her own Mother aspect. What was once hidden is brought to the light of consciousness and integrated. When Demeter and Persephone are reunited they act as one Goddess. In many representations of them, it is difficult to tell them apart. Demeter and Persephone represent aspects of a single divinity and phases in the developmental process of individual women. After the Maiden returns from the Underworld it is said that now “Hekate precedes and follows her.” By going into the Underworld, the collective unconscious, the individual gains access to the wisdom which came before and which will guide her from now on. By integrating the three aspects of Nymph, Maiden, and Mother, the Crone or wisewoman archetype is activated.

Mother. In the context of the Blood Mysteries, the Mother aspect is the giver of biological life. As an aspect of the Goddess archetype, it is the potential for mental and spiritual creativity as well as biological creation. The Mother aspect is about relationship and connection – empathy, caring, and creativity. The Mother Goddess is also the love Goddess and the Goddess of the erotic.

The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane; it is a source of power and information within our lives. As women, we have been taught by the


male world to distrust that power which arises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. xxi

This is the “Mother” aspect in her fullest sense – our most profoundly creative source. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence. Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama. xxii

Crone. In the Blood Mysteries, the Crone is the postmenopausal woman. It was once thought that when a woman was pregnant she retained her blood within her body to make a baby and when she ceased menstruation she retained her blood to make wisdom. xxiii The Crone is the wisewoman archetype. In the story of Demeter and Persephone, Hekate gives advice and lights the way. The Crone is not often seen or personified except in the old woman but is always the way-shower and mid-wife for the developing feminine consciousness. Although the activation of the wisewoman archetype is usually associated with the postmenopausal years of a women’s life, her wisdom is always available. Jean Bolen reports that some children who were neglected or suffered abuse drew solace and wisdom from an inner source. “As a result, they did not identify with their oppressors and so did not grow up to become like the adults who neglected or abused them. Drawing from wisdom beyond their years, they could survive such childhoods without a loss of soul.” xxiv

Becoming a wisewoman or a Crone is not something that just happens to a woman when she reaches a certain age. As we have seen, the feminine principle is not a static quality or essence but a process of growth and integration. According to Ken Wilber, the developmental process is always one of becoming increasingly more whole. The psyche – like the cosmos at large – is many-layered, composed of successively “higher-order” wholes. Our growth, from infancy to adulthood, is a miniature version of cosmic evolution. Psychological growth or development in humans is simply a microcosmic reflection of universal growth on the whole, and has the same goal: the unfolding of ever more inclusive unities and integrations. “Very like the geological formation of the earth, psychological development proceeds, stratum-by-stratum, level-by-level, state by stage, with each successive level


superimposed upon its predecessor in such a way that it includes but transcends it.” xxv

Although the feminine developmental process is one of increasing wholeness and integration, it is not always so linear and neat. A woman, for example, could develop her Mother aspect at a young age before she has fully activated her Maiden aspect. Perhaps she took on responsibilities for her younger siblings when her own Mother died and didn’t have the opportunity to become an independent “Maiden” until much later in life. Many of us have lost contact with our Nymph aspect, our “inner child,” our ability to play and our connection to the natural world, but it is never too late to find her. We each develop and integrate in our own way.

The Crone aspect is always available to us and is itself always aiding in the integration process. The fully activated Crone archetype shows itself in the wisewoman’s ability to access her Nymph, Maiden, and Mother aspects at will – she can be playful and independent and can access tremendous creative energies. A woman doesn’t automatically become a Crone when she reaches a certain age. Becoming Crone is a conscious process and it is up to each woman when she enters her Croning.


The myth of Demeter and Persephone provides us with an outline of the process of individuation or coming to wholeness in an individual woman and the “return” of the feminine principle in the collective. On the individual level there are many journeys to the Underworld and back. We face many challenges in our life, and when we make it through, we grow in depth and wisdom. The real meaning of the return of the feminine principle to the collective will be accomplished when enough women enter into the process of integration and wholeness. And when the generations unite bringing the energy of the feminine process into every aspect of the modern world. This means that in addition to electing women to positions of political power and putting women in leadership roles, the process of government, business, family, and all institutions must take into account the feminine principle in all decisions and


activities and include feminine wisdom in all of its aspects.
Jean Bolen suggests that the way to channel women’s wisdom into the culture

is by activating the archetype of the circle of wisewoman. “This circle is both a sacred dimension and embodies the collective wisdom of its members. …When older women meet together in a wisewoman circle, they are reenacting what was lost when indigenous and goddess-worshiping cultures were conquered, and yet each circle is a new creation with unique possibilities.” xxvi Wisewomen circles are central to what Bolen calls “Spiritual Feminism,” the third wave of feminism, which she says is “gathering now in women’s psyches. Its first visible sign is the growing number of grass-roots women’s circles that have a sacred dimension.”xxvii The next wave of feminism has to do with bringing women’s wisdom and spirituality into the world.

I believe that in order to bring wisdom and spirituality into the world, old and young women must come together. The separation of the generations is antithetical to feminine becoming. It is part of the kinship pattern of patriarchy, and reflects the pattern of generations of fathers and sons – power is passed from father to son either through a system of nepotism or revolution. Historically, sons join together and revolt against the fathers in power and then their sons revolt against them and so on. We don’t want to imitate this pattern. The emerging feminine consciousness will not be brought about by the separation of generations of women — young women activists on the one hand and older women meeting in wisewomen circles on the other. It requires a reunion of mother and daughter, both within our own individual psyches and in the world.

Our spiritual activism can be the product of “myth-making” circles in which we identify the pattern of our lives by understanding life events in terms of universal archetypal patterns. We can use the developmental model described above and identify the functioning of the Nymph, Maiden, Mother and Crone in our own lives but we need to be open to the possibility of uncovering new patterns. These phases are based on a story told originally thousands of years ago, which may provide guidelines for the telling of our own stories but human consciousness has evolved through a patriarchal era and the structure of our consciousness has evolved from the time of the Goddess. The most important thing is for us to tell our own stories and


uncover our own patterns. It’s likely that each woman’s pattern has some of the elements of the story of Demeter and Persephone but there will be many variations and novelties. We each come to wholeness in our own way and as we do we bring our wisdom and spirituality into the world. Once we learn to recognize the patterns of our own developmental process we become more conscious of our sources of spirituality, wisdom, compassion, and action.

Blavatsky, H.P. The Voice of Silence. Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1992.

Bolen, Jean Shinoda. Goddesses In Older Women. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Gadon, Elinor. The Once and Future Goddess. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Hall, Calvin S., and Vernon J. Nordby. A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Jung, Carl. Civilization in Transition. Edited by Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler; translated by R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

________. Two Essays in Analytical Psychology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.
Nicholson, Shirley, comp. The Goddess Re-Awakening: The Feminine Principle

Today. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1989. Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Number and Time. Evanston: Northwestern University

Press, 1974.

Walker, Barbara. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983.

Weinstein, Victoria. Persephone’s Underworld Journey: Reclaiming A Resurrection Narrative for Women. Presented at the Conference on Female Spirituality, York University, Ontario, March 4, 1996. Available on-line,


Wilber, Ken. The Atman Project. Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980.

i Presented by the Women of Wisdom Foundation of Seattle Washington, available on line at http//; Internet.

ii Beatrice Bruteau, “The Unknown Goddess,” in The Goddess Re-Awakening:The Feminine Principle Today (Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 68.

iii Merlin Stone, introduction to The Goddess Re-Awakenimg: The Feminine Principle Today by Shirley Nicholson (Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 1.
iv Calvin Hall and Vernon J. Norby, A Primer of Jungian Psychology (New York: Penguin

Books, 1999), 39.
v Carl G. Jung, Collected Works Volume 91, page 48, quoted in Calvin Hall and Vernon J.Norby, A

Primer of Jungian Psychology (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 42.
vi Calvin Hall and Vernon J. Norby, A Primer of Jungian Psychology (New York: Penguin

Books, 1999), 42.
vii I use this term cautiously. By a ‘principle’ I do not mean something static or fixed and ‘feminine’

does not refer to a list of qualities supposed to be exhibited by female persons. Rather, I

hope to show that the feminine principle refers to a developmental process.
viii Jean Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses In Older Women (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), ix.
ix Ibid. , 5.
x Carl G. Jung, Civilization in Transition, edited by Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard

Adler; translated by R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 1.
xi Beatrice Bruteau, “The Unknown Goddess,” in The Goddess Re-Awakening:The Feminine Principle

Today (Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1989), 68.

xii Victoria Weinstein, Persephone’s Underworld Journey: Reclaiming A Resurrection Narrative for Women (Presented at the Conference on Female Spirituality, York University, Ontario, March, 1996), available at; Internet.

xiii Elinor Gadon, The Once and Future Goddess (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 143.
xiv Perhaps as long ago as 5000 BCE.
xv See Charlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Early Greece (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 98-101, and

Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild

Woman Archetype (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992), 412-13.
xvi Victoria Weinstein, Persephone’s Underworld Journey: Reclaiming A Resurrection Narrative for

Women (Presented at the Conference on Female Spirituality, York University, Ontario,

March, 1996), available from; Internet.
xvii H.P. Blavatsky, The Voice of Silence (Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1992), 3
xviii The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary (1966), s.v. “nymph.”
xix Barbara Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (San Francisco: Harper and Row,

1983), 732.
xx Marie-Louise von Franz, Number and Time (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), 14. xxi Audre Lorde, “Uses of The Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA:

Crossing Press, 1984), 59. xxii Ibid.

xxiii Jean Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses In Older Women (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), xi xxiv Ibid., 3-4
xxv Ken Wilber, The Atman Project (Weaton: The Theosophical Publishing House, 1980), 2.

xxvi Jean Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses In Older Women (NewYork: HarperCollins, 2001), 179. xxvii Ibid., 187.



The Puzzle Master

December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

A Preliminary Cofession

This is my reaction to “Genius:  The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” by James Gleick.  Despite Gleick’s valiant effort to present the principles of physics in terms understandable to laymen, I begin this essay with a confession:  I found the description of Feynman’s life, his personality, his relationships and the unique characteristics of his life style to be fascinating.  But, after reading  and re-reading several parts of Gleick’s  book , I still d0 not comprehend major portions of his description of the principles of physics.

I do not attribute this failure to any fault of Gleick’s.  Since Junior High School I have assiduously avoided education in the fields of math and physical science and, as a result, deprived myself of ability to appreciate the interesting story of the technology that has shaped our culture for the past seventy or eighty years.  The field known as quantum electrodynamics has transformed not only our views of the universe of which we are a part, but also the nature of every iota of matter in our planet, including we humans and the other animals who inhabit it.

The Time Frame

Richard Feynman was born in New York in 1918.  He died in 1978.  1919 was  the year that Einstein’s general theory of relativity was proven:  An eclipse of the sun allowed a photographer on earth to establish, just as Einstein had predicted, that a light ray from a distant star was deflected by the sun’s gravitational force to bend slightly as it hurtled toward the earth, thus causing  a tiny edge of the emitting star to remain visible on earth instead of being blocked by the sun.  Einstein’s incite  attracted the attention of talented analysts from around the world and elevated physics to a prominent place in colleges and universities.

Relentless Curiosity

Feynman, while he was a public school boy, became interested in radio electronics and began asking his teachers the “why ?” questions that would structure his life.  For example, he asked, “Why does a ball in the bed of a wagon roll backward when the wagon is drawn forward?”  The response, based on the laws of inertia, did not satisfy him.  It described, but did not provide a reason.  The ultimate response, “We don’t know” was similarly unsatisfying.

Feynman asked one of his high school teachers, “How do sharp things stay sharp all the time if their atoms are always jiggling?”  He got no answer.

Decades later, as a student at MIT, Feynman was still asking the same kinds of questions.  He asked, “Why does a mirror seem to invert left and right, but not top and bottom?”  “Why are mirrored words backwards, but not upside down?”  After baffling his fraternity brothers, he would then explain:  “‘Imagine yourself standing before a mirror’, he suggested, ‘with one hand pointing east and the other west.  Wave the east hand.  The mirror image waves its east hand.   Its head is up.  Its west hand lies to the west.  Its feet are down.  Everything’s really all right.’  Feynman said.  ‘The problem is on the axis running through the mirror.  Your nose and the back of your head are reversed:  if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south.  The problem now is psychological.  We think of our image as another person.  We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so we imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way.  It is in this psychological turnabout that left and right are switched.  It is the same with the book.  If the letters are reversed left and right, it is because we turned the book about a vertical axis to face the mirror.  We could just as easily turn the book from bottom to top instead, in which case the letters will appear upside down.'” (p.331)

This obsession with hidden or obscure items and processes sometimes caused problems for Feynman.  For example, he delighted in figuring out how to open locks and safes, a skill at which he became adept.  During J. Edgar Hoover’s reign at the FBI, Hoover targeted Feynman, claiming he had access to the safes containing classified material related to the U.S. nuclear program and used his access to route copies to the USSR.  This nonsense was never proved and Feynman’s coleagues successfully defended him.  Nevertheless, Gleick notes that Feynman’s FBI file was over a thousand pages long.

Risking The End of the World to End a War

Between 1940 and 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, the mercurial director of the Manhattan Project,  organized a collaborative group of physicists.  Their task:  to create a nuclear weapon.  His team is described in Gleick’s book as “. . . the most eccentric, temperamental, insecure, volatile assortment of thinkers and calculators ever squeezed together in one place.”  Feynman was a major component of this collective effort. Oppenheimer recruited him from Princeton, where Feynman, a graduate student, had already distinguished himself as a member of a cadre of young creators of the emerging field of quantum physics.

The race for creating a nuclear bomb had begun in 1940, led by Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe and other physicists.  They were aware of a parallel effort by Nazi Germany.  The attack on Pearl Horbour December 7, 1941 spiked the effort’s urgency.  Separate but coordinated groups were enlisted to work in Chicago, Oak Ridge Tennessee and a New Mexico desert     outpost called Los Alamos.

This feverish work culminated at an isolated barren location, the Jornado del Muerto (Journey of Death), at 5:29:45 A.M, a few minutes before dawn on July 16, 1945, when the earth’s first mushroom cloud heralded the advent of its first nuclear explosion.  The effort had succeeded.  Man, for the first time, gained access to weapons technology capable of destroying the earth as a habitat for human beings.

Nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon thereafter ended  World War II and elevated physics to new level in laboratories throughout the world.

The Trajectory of a Genius

Feynman’s Friends and Colleagues

Richard Feynman, to me, seemed to move though his adult life like someone with the appearance of an ordinary person but with mental ability that was not merely greater than his contemporary colleagues.  It was  different from theirs.  Gleick describes multiple instances when Feynman was collaborating with one or more colleagues,  seeking a solution to some analytical puzzle.  The others laboriously worked with mathematical models and equations, moving step by step toward a solution.  At some point, sometimes near the beginning of the process, Feynman would produce the solution based on a technique unrelated to  the work done by others.

As I have stated earlier, I was unable to follow Gleick’s description of these episodes.  My limited comprehension was:  Feynman was able to craft solutions graphically, like pictures,  in his brain without working through the mathematical equations otherwise necessary to arrive at the solution.  This phenomenon, unsurprisingly,  led to conflicts between Feynman and his fellow physicists.  These men were, after all, not lacking in talent.  Some of them were renown scholars with published research admired by and studied by other respected physicists.  This conflict was exaccerbated by the fact that, early in his career, he was significantly younger than those with whom he worked.

Hostility toward him was also stoked by his own brash bluntness in expressing his disagreement with others.   Unlike the Corinthians whom St. Paul reproached and mocked, Feynman did not suffer fools gladly. [2 Corinthians 11:19]  Finally, however,when one after another of his arguments proved valid, his co-workers’ skepticism gave way to admiration and tolerance for his peculiar personality.  This conversion was facilitated by the fact that Feynman’s arguments were always directed toward the reasoning of others; never toward them.  He had a sharp wit and was a good companion at a picnic or a party.

Feynman’s Women

As a young man, Feynman was shy with girls.  As a teenager in Far Rockaway, New York, he dated girls but had no serious romantic relationship with any of them.

One day, at the beach, he saw Arline Greenbaum and became attracted to her.  After he finished public school and entered college, he dated her when he come home on holiday.  In his junior year at college, they became engaged.  They postponed marriage because he continued his education as a graduate student rather than seeking a job and the ability to support a family.

While Feynman was working on his PhD, Arline contracted tuberculosis.  In 1942, despite objections by their parents, they were married.  After the ceremony Arline returned to the hospital where she was being treated.  She and Feynman had a devoted and romantic relationship, featuring a constant  exchange of letters, although they were never able to live together, until her death in 1945.  The description of their doomed love reads like Verdi’s libretto account of Alfredo’s love for Violetta in La Traviata, the operatic version of La dame aux Camellias.

In 1952, Feynman married Mary Louise Bell.  That marriage was a total failure.  Feynman was repeatedly unfaithful and his wife was endlessly critical of his behavior and habits when he was at home.  In her divorce petition she complained, among other things, of his lying in bed “doing calculus in his head”.  He did not contest the divorce, granted slightly less than four years after their marriage.

He married Gwyneth Howarth February 24, 1960.  She was from Great Britain.  He arranged for her to immigrate to America to become his housemaid.  After she arrived and moved into his home, they were married.  They  had a son and a daughter.  Their marriage ended February 15, 1988, when Feynman died. Either because of Ms. Howarth’s tolerance or Feynman’s late developing maturity, or both, their marriage was a successful one.

Feynman in Wonderland

There seems to be recurring time lag sequence between fantasy fiction and scientific reality.  Apple has produced Dick Tracy’s wrist radio.  Flash Gordon’s interplanetary  tales seem less astounding after a depot for rocket launches was established near Cape Canaveral in Florida.  Even Zeus’s thunderbolts have become weapons wielded by laser armed cops.  Modern medical research now involves consideration of ethical issues when human life is created in a petri dish or a test tube.  The monster crafted by Dr. Frankenstein, in other words, is no longer the fantasy of a novelist.   It is a problem, and possible future project,  for modern medicine.

I thought about these ideas as I read about quantum physics.  The nucleus of an atom is the field and location where this subject  is studied.  It cannot be magnified to a size assessable to a human eye.  Its contents can leave trails on photographic plates that can be studied, but no one has ever seen a  proton, an electron, a neutrino, a positron,  a quark, a meson or any other particle residing in this nucleus.  Yet a few generations of scientists have acquired knowledge about atomic nuclei that have enabled them to facilitate much of our modern technology.

How?  The best description I have seen of the process is this:  It is like studying the inner workings of a fine watch without being able to open the case.  This kind of study is now essential to every field of science.  Why?  Here is Feynman’s answer:  “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next  generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?  I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms —little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.  In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.”  (pp. 358-359)

James Gleick has described the combined efforts of the small army of physicists who have devoted their talent and endless hours of creative research to describing and learning how to manipulate and create new substances and forms of energy in ways that have both enhanced and threatened our lives.  Richard Feynman was a leader in every phase of this process during his lifetime.  Gleick’s book has a bibliography of Feynman’s published books and articles.  It is six pages of closely spaced micro type.   One of his books is entitled, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

Feynman won many prestigious awards including, in 1965, the Nobel Prize for “. . . fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics with deep ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.”  He shared the prize with Schwinger and Tomonaga.

I was not able to comprehend much of Gleick’s description of the processes that enabled the exploration that disclosed our knowledge of an atomic nucleus.  I did understand that studying the behavior of various substances at different temperatures was part of the process.  Tubes several miles long in which precisely controlled particles could be propelled at other particles enable observers to intuit information about the nuclei of the atoms involved.

Because the particles inside the nuclei are always in motion, the math involved in studying them involves calculating their velocity and path based on very complicated probability equations, the results of which are then compared with the observable behavior of the matter being studied.  When the math becomes predictive of the behavior, it is accepted as accurately describing some aspect of the nucleus being studied.  Variables are, as earlier noted, temperature , the nature of the physical substance in which the nuclei are located and the size of the environment in which the observation is made.

Some of the conclusions that have been reached through these methods do not conform to our common sense observations.   For example, one conclusion that seems to have been accepted is that one of the particles whirling around in the nucleus, at some point, whirls backward in time.  This is an acceptable conclusion, as I understand it, because the particles within the nuclei are moving at or near the speed of light and, at those speeds, space and time relationships change.

It took me some time to absorb this latter information.  It seems that our mundane perception of the world is radically different from the reality of the atoms of which our world is constructed and this is true whether or not it “makes sense”.   This is the reason that the brain tracks I acquired in law school did not equip me to understand physics.

The NASA Disaster

July 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was launched into space at Cape Canaveral Florida.  Seventy-one seconds later it exploded and its seven passengers were killed.  President Reagan appointed a committee to investigate and discover the reason for the tragedy. Feynman was invited to participate.

Feynman was sixty-eight years old, suffering from terminal cancer.  He responded to the request knowing that he had a short time to live. He began by educating himself about the history and engineering involved in the space program and the construction of Challenger.   It finally became clear that the source of the explosion was the seals holding the sections of the rocket boosters together.  The seals were secured with arrangements of pins inserted unto the metal coverings through rubber washers, called O-rings.

The night before the launch, the weather at Cape Canaveral was below freezing and ice collected around the shuttle.   The launch was delayed briefly but the engineers determined that the temperature had moderated sufficiently to allow a safe launch.

Representatives of the companies who were involved in the construction and launching  of the shuttle testified at hearings of the investigating committee.  They used terms like “anomaly” to describe the explosion.  Lawrence Mulloy, project manager for solid rockets, testified that the O-rings were capable of maintaining a safe seal at termperatures ranging from minus 30 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Feynman, took a taxi and found a hardware store.  He bought some rubber washers the same size and material as the O-rings.  He also bought a pair of pliers.  He conducted his own test, using these items.  Based on his findings, he returned to the committee hearing and questioned project manager Mulloy.  Here is a quote from the transcript.

“Chairman Rogers:  Dr. Feynman has one or two comments he would like to make.  Dr. Feynman.

Dr. Feynman:  This is a comment for Mulloy.  I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for awhile and then undo it it doesn’t stretch back.  It stays the same dimension.  In other words, for a few seconds at least and more seconds than that, there is no resiliance in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees.

I believe that has some significance for our problem.”

This exchange occurred one week after Feynman had arrived in Washington, where the investigation was being conducted.  The investigation continued for four months, but Feynman had identified the cause of the disaster with a simple demonstration.

A Personal Speculation

In this essay I have repeatedly confessed my inability to comprehend quantum physics.  I did, however, enjoy reading this book. although it took more time than I anticipated.  It caused me to reconsider some ideas that I have pondered most of my adult life.  It seems obvious that, in some ways, the reality we perceive is created in our brains.  I don’t mean that we are living in a dream.  Nor do I mean that, on a hot day, my brain can create a glass of cold lemonade.  Contrary to what some philosophers have argued, I believe that reality is “really there” ; that it is not an illusion.  That is different from the question of our perception of reality.

Gestalt theory teaches that our minds seek to find patterns, that is, some degree of regularity, from chaos.  I assume that, like the rest of our bodies,  our minds are the result of thousands of years of evolution.  And  that includes the types of patterns our minds add or construct to effect some kind of order to our perceptions.

Carl Jung taught that, contrary to Freud’s theory, our minds include not only a conscious and a subconscious component, but also a collective unconscious.  He studied mythology across cultures and found unmistakable similarities in the stories our prehistoric ancestors told themselves and passed along to us – similarities that could not be explained by person to person communication.  In other words, Jung taught that, just as our brains arrive with the necessary wiring to operate our bodies, they also arrive with the results of thousands of years of story telling in ancient cultures; and there were commonalities in those stories regardless of the absence of actual interactions between those cultures.

He proposed four categories of these archetypes:  The Shadow (the part of our nature we keep hidden); the Animus (the male part of our nature); the Anima (the female part of our nature) and the Self (the combined mixture of the other categories determining who we, as individuals, are or become).

Within these categories, Jung identified a large number of personalities with names like “Wise Woman”, “The Trickster”, “Magician”.  He found these as recurring figures in the myths he studied.

A a psychiatrist named Julian Jaynes proposed a different, but related set of ideas based on Jung’s collective unconscious theory.  Jaynes wrote a book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” in which he argued that our brains became separated into “left brain” and “right brain” only a few thousand years ago.  He claimed that the Greeks and Romans who wrote about a panoply of gods and goddesses who interacted with them were not writing fiction.  He claimed their brains had not yet separated in right and left parts; one part perceiving logic and the other part capable of conceiving events and characters created by imagination. That is, they were writing about what, to them, were actual events and interactions between humans and gods and goddesses.

A significant number of people, including mental health professionals, agree with Jaynes.  He is also regarded as a crackpot by others.  I am skeptical.  I have sampled, but not actually absorbed his book.  His ideas are interesting, whether or not they’re true.

Now, why am I including this speculation in this essay about physics?  Well, when I read about scientists creating an entire field of learning based on the activities of particles no one has ever seen, using their mental ability to arrive at precise descriptions of those particles and precise predictions of their behavior, it seemed to me to be a “quantum leap” (excuse this frivolity) between the reasoning of math-based science and the speculations of psychology and philosophy.

And, finally, I am not alone in this frame of mind.  A physicist, Fritjof Capra has written a very interesting book, “The Tao of Physics” [“Tao” is pronounced “Dow”].  He compares quantum physics to Taoism, a Chinese religion that preceded and is related to Buddhism.

I became an admirer of Taoism in the late 50’s.  It regards human activity as a shifting balance between Yang and Yin, seeking harmony and valuing peace instead of discord.  One text related to Taoism is the I Ching [pronounced Eee Jing].  The I Ching is a kind of guide in which a sage offers advice about everything based on the random results of  groups of sticks [originally yarrow sticks – I use kitchen matches] separated into successively smaller bunches until a number of sticks remain which identify specific paragraphs in the book.  Those paragraphs disclose the Sage’s advice.

Capra does not use the I Ching in his book but Carl Jung wrote a preface for the edition of the English language version of the I Ching I use.

If you have accompanied me this far, you have probably concluded I am a kookoo bird, an old lawyer who spent his life engaged in combat in court rooms and political conventions, while dabbling in oriental philosophy teaching harmony and peace.  I know this is inconsistent.  I also cannot blame it on old age because it began when I was in my 20’s.  I have no excuse.












An Opposing View

November 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

There is an old complaint about lawyers:  Frustrated clients often complain that they want to find a one-armed lawyer so they will not hear “On the other hand”.  Randy Miller, Business Manager for the Teamster Local in Houston in the 50’s and 60’s,  used to argue that labor lawyers’ function was not to advise clients how to stay out of trouble, but to get them out of trouble.  Chris Dixie never agreed, but I remember a bar-room conversation between him and a  friend:  Chris made some statement about criminal law.  His friend said, “Mr. Dixie, I thought you were a labor lawyer, not a criminal lawyer.”  Chris replied, “Hell, when I started practicing labor law, it was criminal law.”

Well, this is about “On the other hand”.

First, let me explain something about the way I see things.  Beginning in my twenties, while I was in college, I consciously and sub-consciously (as I now look backward) rejected absolutes and doctrines and philosophies that offered purity and certainty.  I am not referring to the way I perceived the world, but to the way I perceived myself.  This self-perception was not an event, but a life-long process.

I was attracted to the ideas of Carl G. Jung, who taught that every person  is an amalgam of good and evil -angel and demon – light and shadow.  He believed that acknowledging and claiming the shadow was essential to a balanced and mentally healthy personality.  I was drawn to the Taoist ideas of Lao Tse and the I Ching, a book of changes translated by Richard Wilhelm, for which Jung wrote a long introduction.  Taoists  teach that reality is always a result of opposites, but not opposites in conflict with each other, but continually changing opposites tending toward each other.

Now, I want to be honest about this.  These are slippery and morally dangerous concepts.  They are capable of being used to excuse and rationalize trashy behavior, a convenience that, at times in my life, I have employed fully in stupid and self-destructive ways.  I think I have survived those episodes in a two-step process:  First, I  stopped drinking alcohol.  [This didn’t happen until I was 55 years old.  I’m a slow learner.]  Second, I had to spend several thousand hours painfully reviewing and reexamining the rationalizations that caused me and several others much pain and harm.

But, having made some progress, I still have to pause sometimes and remind myself that my judgments are always subject to review and reconsideration.

The reason for all this prelude is that my attack on the loophole solution to re-balancing our tax system drew spirited blow-back from people whose opinions I respect.  I am not persuaded, but their ideas deserve consideration, especially because the loophole solution is probably most likely to be the one we get, whether we like it or not.

The great advantage of closing loopholes designed specifically to benefit the wealthiest 1% is that it would target those who have benefited most from the unfair taxation policies of the last decade or so.   An increase in the top rate, on the other hand, would hit many who have not benefited from the loopholes and who have attained their level of wealth through personal effort and determination.  For example, compare Barack Obama and George Romney.   Is it fair for Obama and Romney to have identical increases in their taxes as a result of the current effort?  Obama’s wealth results from two books and a lifetime of effort.  Romney’s wealth results from cleverly taking advantage of every tax crack and crevice known to taxation experts and schemers.  Should their wealth be treated the same by the tax code?

Also, consider the fact that state and local taxes vary widely between states and municipalities.  An increase in the top federal income tax rate will affect equally those with high and low state and local taxes.  Does that raise a fairness issue?  The scalpel versus the meat-ax solution would mitigate this problem.

The specific facts about these issues are not yet public or, at least, not known to me.  I assume that, during the next few weeks, we will have an avalanche of data to absorb concerning the relative results of these solutions.  That may require us to re-assess our present preferences.

For now, although I acknowledge the above-stated arguments, I still believe that allowing the Bush tax cuts for the top rate to expire will be the best solution.  I don’t trust the Congress to revise the tax code’s complexity in ways that will balance the kind of cuts in safety-net programs that Republicans will demand.  The term “loopholes” fails to describe the kind of carefully crafted corporate welfare that has been stealthily inserted into the tax code.   When that welfare is threatened, lobbyists will descend on Washington like locusts and  threats to political careers will resemble the kind of “offer you cannot refuse” fictionalized in The Godfather.

Even more important, I don’t believe the loophole solution can be explained to the average American family like the top rate increase can.  The top rate increase is simple and easily grasped, even by working  people who have no time or inclination to become taxation mavins.   I am hopeful that President Obama will make full use of his ability to stay in touch with the American voters who just re-hired him.   If he does, I think he can negotiate from strength rather than weakness.

I have already heard from John Boehner and Lindsey Graham that “The President should lead by adopting Simpson-Bowles.”  This apparently will be their version of a compromise.  I have a proposal about that:  The Simpson-Bowles recommendations should be re-analyzed according to a new set of facts.

Instead of analyzing them according to projections of dollars “saved” and available to pay down the deficit, they should be analyzed according to how many people will die as a result of inadequate health care; how many young people will be denied a college education as a result of cuts in grants for that purpose; how many children will go to bed hungry as a result of cuts in food stamp money; how many elderly people who do physically demanding work will be required to continue that work after they reach the age of 67.   There are other consequences that I cannot think of now, but this suggests the idea.  This information should become part of the public discussion about changes in so-called “entitlements”.   Let those who insist on the cuts take responsibility for the human as well as the financial consequences.

On another note:  I have looked at the present tax brackets.   The top rate  of 35% does not apply until adjusted gross income exceeds $388,250 for taxpayers filing jointly.  Why is President Obama talking about people making “more than $250,000”?  If allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans would raise the top rate from 35% to 36.9% only on taxpayers filing jointly with adjusted gross incomes of over $388,250,  why not say that.  That would at least avoid opposition from most people making between $250,000 and $388,250, a $138,250 tranche.  There may be something I’m missing here.  If anyone reading this knows the answer, I’d appreciate it.  Just leave me a comment.

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