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William Irwin Thompson

even Leakey – all these are constructed narratives that are inescapably mythic. The whole notion of explanation falls into mythic structures. There’s a wonderful book on narratives of human evolution by Misia Landau.

She says if you go back and study the structure of the folktale about how the hero leaves a safe enviroment, is then put through a sequence of challenges and is then confronted by someone who gives him a gift to be able to go forward and resolve the challenge and then settle into a new steady state. You can take that structure of folkloric motif and apply it to all these different theories of human evolution. Science is inherently mythic.

When I was saying this stuff in lectures in New York in the 70’s, it was kind of against the grain, but that way of thinking began to come up much more in the `80’s, becauseMichel Serres in Paris was giving a similar sequence to the whole nature of mythic thought. So now it’s not quite so radical.

Rebecca: I could see how some scientists might have a problem with their work being described as mythic not only because the popular understanding of the word myth is something that’s false, but also because mythic ideas evolve whereas scientific truth is seen as permanent and unchanging.

Bill: I interviewed Heisenberg before he died in the Max Planck Institute in Munich. He said that scientists today are just stonemasons putting one block next to another and they don’t have a view of the whole cathedral. There’s always been a difference between scientists who have just been trained and read textbooks and just pass on received opinion, and someone who is a creative scientist like Heisenberg.

If you’re talking to serious philosophers in science, they don’t have any problem with that mythopoeic quality. It’s just if people are ignorant and think that myth means something is false like there isn’t a Santa Claus, then yes, they would have problems with that, but I wouldn’t necessarily regard them as heavies in the philosophy of science.

There was a wonderful book in the thirties called The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwick Fleck which is actually the source of T.S Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Everybody’s read Kuhn’s book, but Fleck’s book is more brilliant and deeper and more inspiring. There’s always this kind of Marx-Lenin relationship in the popularization of ideas.

Anyway, when Fleck first came out with the book people said, wait a minute, a fact is a fact. But he said no. He was one of the first constructionists to say, a fact requires a theory the way a flame requires an atmosphere. He showed the construction of “disease” with the Wasserman test and the history of syphilis. He mapped the various images of this disease over three or four centuries to describe the paradigm shifts by which syphilis and bacteriology became reconceptualized.

Rebecca: Do you think that even scientists of the caliber of Lovelock and Margulis sometimes miss the full experience of their discoveries because they need to spend so much time in the intellectual realm?

Bill: No. I think those two are good examples of three or four dimensional people. Lynn Margulis raised four kids herself and has led a full life, is fluent in Spanish and is involved in culture on many different levels. Lovelock was a tough working-class kid from Brixton and used to sell his blood to get money to do his doctorate. He was clever enough to ask why a scientist should have to live in a big, impersonal bureaucracy rather than like a composer or a poet. Then he moved out to the countryside and converted a mill into a laboratory – so he’s extremely holistic.

Rebecca: You experience scientific truths in a different way to a scientist though.

Bill: I’ve found more scientists are actually into poetry and culture than poets are into science. Often they’re superb pianists or jazz musicians – Heisenberg was a pianist andEinstein was a violinist. Most of all the scientists I’ve met are full, fleshed out, complicated, interesting and sensitive people.

Rebecca: You are in the minority in that, as a poet and writer, you have a strong intuitive grasp of scientific concepts. Do you feel frustrated in your lack of scientific understanding because intuitive knowledge is largely seen as less valuable than linear knowledge?

Bill: No. I just feel frustrated with my own stupidity. (laughter) I’m really not as good at mathematics and science as I’d like to be and I can only come at these ideas from the intuitive level.

Rebecca: Aren’t you looked upon with some suspicion though, being someone untrained in the sciences presuming to write about scientific theories that even many scientists are having difficulty in grasping.

Bill: The surprising thing is how often scientist’s eyes have lit up and they have become affirmative, because I would expect an attack. But it’s kind of self-selecting, because at M.I.T it was a very aggressive, competitive, violent kind of environment and I certainly have had experiences of being attacked by Chomsky or Morton Smith. But in general I’ve had positive experiences with people like Margulis or Lovelock. Most of those people are intuitive types themselves, so we are all weirdos getting together for our own mutual support.

Rebecca: So you’re not viewed terribly differently then in a gathering of your scientific friends – you’re not seen as somewhat of an odd fish?

Bill: It’s funny, I think they like it, whether as Irish bullshit or blarney, (laughter) but I’m always a bit afraid. Last summer at the Lindisfarne meeting I didn’t want to embarrass my son who is in the academic world. He had invited some people from the University of Chicago and Stuart Kauffman was there who is a heavy from the Santa Fe Institute. I was trying not to be too far out and mystical and Stuart was saying, “relax, Bill, it’s okay.”

It tends to be a self-selecting and self-organizing process where like attracts like and you get into this chamber music ensemble. I’ve experienced both ridicule and humiliation and also flashes that have actually inspired people to go out and do scientific work from suggestions that I’ve given them.

David: Could you give an example?

Bill: Ralph Abraham and I are working on trying to do a canon on the proportional system for the paleolithic statues of the Great Goddess because my intuition was that the ratio of the head to the breasts to the hip etc.. is a mathematical sequencing. If that were worked out with musical analogs that could be interesting. So at the gathering of Lindisfarne fellows in Colorado this summer, I expect that he will share with us what he’s done on the computer.

David: I’m curious about your ideas on the evolutionary process, and I’m wondering why do you think that sexual frequency and genital size have increased over time?

Bill: That’s an interesting question. Part of it is in the shift from the estrus cycle to menses. The process of hominization involves the eroticization of time as the very foundation of consciousness. A lot of myths deal with the point where language and sexuality come together and make us human, where there is this crossing between the two.

I think there is a recognition that sexuality is an acceleration of time. If you take half your genetic endowment and throw it away to receive a new half from another partner, then what you’re getting is a process of innovation so that the children are not like the parents. So, inherently, sexuality is an acceleration of time, a speeding up of evolution and a consciousness of intensity, of orgasm and ecstatic time. Time and sex are inherently part of the architecture of consciousness and incarnation.

What’s interesting is to realize that the most erotic organ is the mind. I think there’s also a relationship between – not just genital size – but the bottom and the top of the spinal column. If you look at the spinal cord you see that the brain and the genitals are really one organ. But it’s also what we share with whales and dolphins because they too have elaborate courtship rituals. Dolphins particularly are open to sex at all times and also have a huge brain – so dolphins and humans seem to be sharing this evolutionary experiment.

Mystics like Rudolph Steiner predict that in the future sexuality is going to shift from the genital chakra to the throat chakra and that there will be a kind of logos spermaticos, a pure vibrational quality by which the erotic is connected through speech and sound. It may be something that young people are inherently recognizing through the eroticization of pop music.

David: The cultural link between sex and death was foreshadowed by their simultaneous biological arrival, but I’m wondering if you

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