Are you sure?

a short essay in Content and Context (TS ·15) – it includes plenty of links you can use for more context or disambiguation.

As a companion piece, i recommend a podcast (‘Frankly’ #60) by Nate Hagens, where he asks the question “What (if anything) are you absolutely certain of?” – and lists 17 answers of his own. On Youtube it’s at

If you’d like to participate in a small-group discussion of this excerpt from Turning Signs, send Gary an email proposing a date and time that’s good for you, and we’ll see who else is available at that time, and i’ll send everyone a Zoom link for it.

For a while we had a series of regular sessions to confer about the chapters of Turning Signs in order, and we might revive that if enough people can make a long-term commitment to a regular time slot for this purpose. Let me know if you’re interested. Meanwhile we can try having single sessions on stand-alone points from the book at any time you choose.

How to read

The reading situation is always changing. In the 21st Century, changes in media (such as the ascendancy of the internet) have deeply affected our modes of reading. Here’s a short list of the main modes:

  • Searching – looking for something very specific in a text or a network of potential information – has been vastly speeded up and extended by access to search engines, as compared to the searching one can do in printed texts.
  • Browsing – meandering casually from text to text (site to site, page to page) on the chance of finding something interesting – is almost the opposite of searching, but has also been facilitated by the internet. It’s no accident that the software used for reading webpages is called a “browser”; it’s optimized for dealing with the miscellaneous. But if you have actually read this far into this page, you’ve entered a different reading mode, either skimming or scanning.
  • Skimming is the speed-reading mode you use for a newspaper or novel or “social media” page, when you just want to get the gist of the information or story without getting deeply involved in the text or expecting every word to be carefully chosen.
  • Scanning is a much more intense and concentrated mode in which you study the text closely without skipping over any of the details. However, even scanning does not necessarily involve the kind of deep immersion in a text that i call
  • Whole-body reading or the experiencing of a turning sign. In order to do that, you have to focus on the dynamic object of the sign through the text, to fully inhabit that universe of discourse.

Using the internet for this last and deepest kind of reading is certainly possible, but the practice seems to get swept aside by the habits of skimming and browsing encouraged by this medium. When we do get immersed in an e-text, it’s often something we found by searching, or something we’ve been directed to by some algorithm based on some database of our browsing habits, and this makes it all too likely that it will confirm our prejudices (the “blinkers of habit”) instead of challenging them. This will discourage critical thinking – which is an important part of experiential or deep reading – unless we make a conscious effort to choose with care what we read and how we read it.

The explosion of claims on our attention, and the resulting frustration, was noted even back in the 20th Century by Stanislaw Lem, in his 1985 review of a 1988 book (published on the moon) called One Human Minute:

Because advertising, with monstrous effectiveness, attributes perfection to everything—and so to books, to every book—a person is beguiled by twenty thousand Miss Universes at once and, unable to decide, lingers unfulfilled in amorous readiness like a sheep in a stupor. So it is with everything. Cable television, broadcasting forty programs at once, produces in the viewer the feeling that, since there are so many, others must be better than the one he has on, so he jumps from program to program like a flea on a hot stove, proof that technological progress produces new heights of frustration.… There had to be a book, then, about what Everybody Else was doing, so that we would be tormented no longer by the doubt that we were reading nonsense while the Important Things were taking place Elsewhere.

That book is imaginary, but in Lem’s review of it, ‘the microscopic capacity of human consciousness is revealed’ (p. 7) to every deep reader who acknowledges his own limitations.

But deep reading also requires ‘the spirit of freedom,’ as Virginia Woolf observed in a Common Reader piece called “How Should One Read a Book?”:

To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries. Everywhere else we may be bound by laws and conventions – there we have none.

But to enjoy freedom, if the platitude is pardonable, we have of course to control ourselves. We must not squander our powers, helplessly and ignorantly, squirting half the house in order to water a single rose-bush; we must train them, exactly and powerfully, here on the very spot.

Ideally, reading (including viewing, hearing and touching) ought to be a balancing loop in the guidance system – a way of trying out a less familiar perspective on the world, to find out whether it might make a difference to working or playing with it from then on.

Creation and transformation

If the natural world is ‘the primary revelation of the divine’ or ‘primary scripture’ as Thomas Berry says (1988, 105), then language is the secondary scripture (and written/printed texts are tertiary). However, many of the mystical branches of scripture-based religions have seen this order in reverse.

In the Kabbalistic view, the Torah existed before the physical world, which was created by means of the Word. The Qur’án has been likewise regarded by Muslims as ‘uncreated,’ giving it metaphysical priority over the created world. For Sufis such as Baha al-Din (father of Jalal al-Din Rumi), ‘all creation came into being with God’s command, “Be,” so that the universe is speech, created by a single word’ (Lewis 2000, 90). Consequently it makes sense to organize one’s whole life around reading and meditating on the Qur’án or Torah, as the case may be. ‘Always busy yourself with the word of the Koran and know that the meaning of the whole world is in that one word of the Koran,’ advised Baha al-Din (Lewis 2000, 87). Kabbalists like Abraham Abulafia took the compression of meaning even further, ‘focusing on the pure forms of the letters of the alphabet, or on the name of God’ (Matt 1995, 12). This for them was the way of renewal or recreation, of reunion with the creative power.

Today we could read this practice as metaphorically affirming the semiotic nature of the universe. Spirit is significance itself; and as Peirce put it, physical matter is ‘effete mind’ (CP 6.25) – a portion of original Minding which has fallen so far into habitual patterns that its original spontaneity is almost completely exhausted. Human mentality, with its symbolic media and extensions enabling foresight, planning and conscious decision-making, is a specific refinement in concentrated form of more universal (larger-scale, slower, vaguer) mental processes such as evolution (Bateson 1979) or development (Salthe 1993).

The cosmic mind impersonates itself in each of us, and we return the favor by personifying it as God, who is Author of the universe just as we author our own conceptions. The danger here is that we may wrap ourselves up in our own creations, be they conceptual or technological, and thus cut ourselves off from the more-than-human reality around us. The glories of the biosphere itself may come to seem a mere distraction, which we shut out with an artificial cocoon – an ‘Abominable Corruption’ of our nature, as Thomas Traherne put it (First Century, 31).

Leaving the cocoon is becoming homeless in the sense honored by religious traditions (especially Buddhism: Snyder 1990, 103 ff.) – leaving behind the temptations and complications of social life, especially urban life, and thus becoming free to venture into the more-than-human world. ‘“Homeless” is here coming to mean “being at home in the whole universe”’ (Snyder 1990, 104).

Can such a metamorphosis take place at the higher scale of a human community? Elisabet Sahtouris argued in EarthDance that the process is already under way, as bioregionalism begins to replace the global culture of extractive capitalism:

Bioregionalism is consistent with grassroots democratic movements that are cropping up all over the world, creating new local self-sufficiency systems with their own currencies. From huge housewives cooperatives in Japan to sustainability movements in the hi-tech Silicon Valley world, ordinary people are taking control over their lives into their own hands and practicing local democracy.

Many people wonder how long we have to turn things around. It is really not a question of some critical turning point, but of nurturing more viable systems even as the old ones decay. One metaphor for our changing world is Norie Huddle’s story of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. After consuming hundreds of times its own weight daily as it munches its way through its ecosystem, the bloated caterpillar forms its chrysalis. Inside its body, new biological entities called imaginal discs arise, at first destroyed by its immune system. But as they grow more in number and begin to link up, they begin to survive. Eventually the caterpillar’s immune system fails, its body goes into meltdown and the imaginal discs become the cells that build the butterfly from the spent materials that had held the blueprint for the butterfly all along. In just this way, a healthy new world, based on the principles of living systems, can emerge through today’s chaotic transformation.
Sahtouris 1999 (Kindle edition)

(This is a transformation of a post originally published in September 2015.)

Good for

The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places people reject and so is like the Tao.

Tao Te Ching 8 (Feng/English)

The same text translated by Red Pine:

The best are like water
bringing help to all
without competing

A comment on this text by Wang Pi (included in Red Pine’s edition, p. 17):

The Tao does not exist, but water does. Hence, it only approaches the Tao.

Does the flow of water exist? Does energy flow exist? We can say it does when we see work being done, some purpose being served. But what determines which product or service exists or occurs as a result of the process? The Way it works.

Charles S. Peirce would agree with Wang Pi that the highest good (or God) does not exist, but is real, because it ‘determines the suchness of that which may come into existence, when it does come into existence’ (Peirce, EP2:269). Who or what is that good for?