The Determinator

The early Wittgenstein wrote that ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’ (Tractatus 5.6). But the deeper limiting factor is the limits of experience due to the mind’s embodiment, which enables even the wildest imagination. This includes one’s conception of the Creator of the universe. Peirce as a pragmaticist held
that man is so completely hemmed in by the bounds of his possible practical experience, his mind is so restricted to being the instrument of his needs, that he cannot, in the least, mean anything that transcends those limits. The strict consequence of this is, that it is all nonsense to tell him that he must not think in this or that way because to do so would be to transcend the limits of a possible experience. For let him try ever so hard to think anything about what is beyond that limit, it simply cannot be done. You might as well pass a law that no man shall jump over the moon; it wouldn’t forbid him to jump just as high as he possibly could.
For much the same reason, I do not believe that man can have the idea of any cause or agency so stupendous that there is any more adequate way of conceiving it than as vaguely like a man. Therefore, whoever cannot look at the starry heaven without thinking that all this universe must have had an adequate cause, can in my opinion not otherwise think of that cause half so justly than by thinking it is God.
CP 5.536, c. 1905
Unfortunately, for many believers the conception of “God” has not been anywhere near vague enough, as they imagine the ‘stupendous agency’ to be something like a dominating alpha male, rather than a Mind whose only embodiment is the lived and living universe of experience. Surely the Creator and Determinator of whatever happens cannot be as determinate as any willful or existing Self. There is no Dominus but the dominance of reality itself, and we poor creatures can only determine what that is within the limits of our own embodiment.

What Peirce called ‘the scientific method’ in his ‘Fixation of Belief’ essay, he later called ‘the method of experience’ – emphasizing the wild reality of experience and the humility of the method.
Changes of opinion are brought about by events beyond human control. All mankind were so firmly of opinion that heavy bodies must fall faster than light ones, that any other view was scouted as absurd, eccentric, and probably insincere. Yet as soon as some of the absurd and eccentric men could succeed in inducing some of the adherents of common sense to look at their experiments – no easy task – it became apparent that nature would not follow human opinion, however unanimous. So there was nothing for it but human opinion must move to nature’s position. That was a lesson in humility. A few men, the small band of laboratory men, began to see that they had to abandon the pride of an opinion assumed absolutely final in any respect, and to use all their endeavors to yield as unresistingly as possible to the overwhelming tide of experience, which must master them at last, and to listen to what nature seems to be telling us. The trial of this method of experience in natural science for these three centuries – though bitterly detested by the majority of men – encourages us to hope that we are approaching nearer and nearer to an opinion which is not destined to be broken down – though we cannot expect ever quite to reach that ideal goal.
from How to Reason, 1893 (R 407: 20–21, CP 5.384fn)
Over a century later, is ‘the trial of this method of experience’ still encouraging us? Or is it proceeding like Kafka’s Process?

Creation Evolving and other stories

I’ve been busy exploring some of the information about the transition accessible on the Net now, especially from the Post Carbon Institute – more on that below – and looking into ways to enhance the resilience of my local community here on Manitoulin Island. But i’ve also been busy revising the last chapter (19) of my book Turning Signs.

I’ve been growing more dissatisfied with that chapter since i first published it in 2015, but not until now have i come up with a version that seems to work as a culmination of my whole 19-chapter argument. It’s called ‘Creation Evolving’, it’s online now, and i’d appreciate any comments on it from critical readers. (Since it frequently refers back to previous parts of the book, i’ve included lots of links back to the key concepts, but i don’t claim that it’s an easy read!)

This reflects my habit of going back and forth from a local focus on current practice to a more global contemplation of “deep time” and the deeper practices of nature and cultures. It’s like my other habit of alternating between silent walks in the woods and spells of wrestling with words. (The photo below was taken by Pam during one of our November strolls. Note the rare patch of blue sky reflected in the puddle.) I feel that the two practices enhance one another by alternating, somewhat like sleeping and waking. (After all, how can you wake up if you haven’t been sleeping?)

Anyway, this sort of back-and-forth seems to help me keep my balance in this Era of Upheaval. I’ve lifted that phrase from the title of a Post Carbon Institute book, The Community Resilience Reader: Essential Resources for an Era of Upheaval. You can buy this book from the usual sources, or you can get access to it online for free by registering with the PCI.

Another relevant book you can get for free, thanks to the generosity of the authors, is Your Post has been Removed: Tech Giants and Freedom of Speech, by Frederik Stjernfelt and Anne Mette Lauritzen. This new book delves into the roles of the ‘tech giants’ (especially Google and Facebook) in the current cultural/political upheaval. I’m halfway through it now, and although its main focus is ‘freedom of speech,’ it also throws light on the role of social media in the ecological/economic crisis.

As Stjernfelt and Lauritzen point out, ‘freedom of speech’ includes freedom of access to information, so it’s appropriate as well as fortunate that they’ve allowed open access to it. Like Turning Signs, it comes with a Creative Commons license. At this traditionally hyperconsumptive time of year, it’s good to see the Commons growing!

Finally i’m really happy to see the website of Local Food Manitoulin. This is the kind of community initiative that can address all four sides of the current crisis: ecology, energy, economy and equity. It doesn’t ask you to indulge in either optimism or pessimism about the climate emergency, because it can work (locally, of course) toward both prevention and mitigation of the worst effects of global heating.

At our latitude, we’re sinking into the darkest part of the year (for those of us who are solar powered, at least). But we have the winter solstice coming up in less than two weeks, and things are bound to get brighter after that. In the meantime let us carry on with the upheaval, or transition, or whatever we call it. And keep in touch with the Earth.

photo by Pam Jackson


And they leap so looply, looply, as they link to light.

Finnegans Wake 226

Symbols (and even natural or non-symbolic dicisigns as self-representing signs) are the semiotic equivalent, or mental manifestation, of the brain processes that appear as consciousness. This self-representation is a feedforward-feedback cycle like the meaning cycle. Thomas Metzinger explains:

In conscious visual processing, for example, high-level information is dynamically mapped back to low-level information, but it all refers to the same retinal image. Each time your eyes land on a scene (remember, your eye makes about three saccades per second), there is a feedforward-feedback cycle about the current image, and that cycle gives you the detailed conscious percept of that scene. You continuously make conscious snapshots of the world via these feedforward-feedback cycles. In a more general sense, the principle is that the almost continuous feedback-loops from higher to lower areas create an ongoing cycle, a circular nested flow of information, in which what happened a few milliseconds ago is dynamically mapped back to what is coming in right now. In this way, the immediate past continuously creates a context for the present— it filters what can be experienced right now. We see how an old philosophical idea is refined and spelled out by modern neuroscience on the nuts-and-bolts level. A standing context-loop is created. And this may be a deeper insight into the essence of the world-creating function of conscious experience: Conscious information seems to be integrated and unified precisely because the underlying physical process is mapped back onto itself and becomes its own context. If we apply this idea not to single representations, such as the visual experience of an apple in your hand, but to the brain’s unified portrait of the world as a whole, then the dynamic flow of conscious experience appears as the result of a continuous large-scale application of the brain’s prior knowledge to the current situation. If you are conscious, the overall process of perceiving, learning, and living creates a context for itself— and that is how your reality turns into a lived reality.

— Metzinger 2009, 31-32


The shorter the scripture, the more it says to the deep reader. For instance the very compactness of the Sefer Yetzirah contributed greatly to its seminal nature as the primary source of so much Kabbalistic symbolism. ‘Everyone found in the book more or less what he was looking for,’ as Scholem (1962, 34) says. Likewise you can find your turning symbol in the fragments of Heraclitus, the Tao Te Ching, the Gospel of Thomas, or Dogen’s ‘GenjoKoan’, if you read them recreatively.

For Thomas Traherne it was the Cross: ‘There may we see the most Distant Things in Eternity united: all Mysteries at once couched together and Explained’ (First Century 58). The Cross is, of course, the point of Crossing, or of fixation or final determination – or, as the icon of extension, the monad pulled in the four directions at once, the point turned inside out.

Accidental exploration

There is another aspect to the hope placed in randomness: to a program that exploits randomness, all pathways are open, even if most have very low probabilities; conversely, to a program whose choices are always made by consulting a fixed deterministic strategy, many pathways are a priori completely closed off. This means that many creative ideas will simply never get discovered by a program that relies totally on ‘intelligence’. In many circumstances, the most interesting routes will be more likely to be discovered by accidental exploration than if the ‘best’ route at each junction is invariably chosen.

Hofstadter and FARG (1995, 115)

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.

Blake, ‘Proverbs of Hell’


Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Thoreau, Walden, chp. 18

We still and always want waking.

— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989, 593)

And then. Be old. The next thing is. We are once amore as babes awondering in a wold made fresh where with the hen in the storyaboot we start from scratch.

It is only by taking fresh looks at situations thought already to be understood that we come up with truly insightful and creative visions. The ability to reperceive, in short, is at the crux of creativity.

Hofstadter/FARG (1995, 308)

Primal flow

The sacred text is what the sacred river is currently reading, the streambed of consciousness.

(Stoop), if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop) in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all.

The Restored Finnegans Wake, 14

Drawing nearer to take our slant at it (since after all it has met with misfortune while all underground), let us see all there may remain to be seen.

The act of meaning the sacred text involves collision and collusion with the limits of language.

Beware lest ye be hindered by the veils of glory from partaking of the crystal waters of this living Fountain.

Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas ¶50

But give glad tidings to those who believe and work righteousness, that their portion is Gardens, beneath which rivers flow. Every time they are fed with fruits therefrom, they say: “Why, this is what we were fed with before,” for they are given things in similitude; and they have therein companions pure (and holy); and they abide therein (for ever).

Qur’án 2:25 (Yusuf Ali)

Art as recreation

In his book Art as Experience, John Dewey argues that having an experience always involves both acting and perceiving, both doing and feeling, and the esthetic experience is the most ‘integral’ kind, moving toward the ‘closure of a circuit of energy’ (Dewey 1934, 42). It involves a receptivity, but perception itself is ‘an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive’ (55). This is true for both the artist and the beholder of a work of art.

For to perceive, the beholder must create his own experience. And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent. They are not the same in any literal sense. But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced. Without an act of recreation the object is not perceived as a work of art.

— Dewey 1934, 56

Dewey contrasts this act of ‘recreation’ with the ‘recognition’ which dismisses the object perceived as something already known and not worthy of the more active attention it would take to learn something new about it. Regarding the work of art as a sign, its object is the ‘form’ in which the ‘elements of the whole’ are ordered. Its interpretant, as the recreation of the beholder, is another sign of that object, though it will differ in other respects from the creator’s experience.