Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Whedon and Lynch Videos on WGBH's Forum Network

Joss Whedon
Update: See my Google+ thread about this speech with a link to the YouTube version of the video.

Back in April of this year, I posted about Joss Whedon's appearance at Harvard to accept an award from the Humanist Chaplaincy. At the time, I knew that it was recorded, but not when or if it would show up where people could get at it. Well, now it's here. If you go to WGBH's Forum Network, you'll find "Joss Whedon: Cultural Humanist." (note: that seems to be down...  not sure if it will come back. see the relevant bits on YouTube) Watch and enjoy. It was a really great event, and well worth listening to his views on the interaction between the religious and non-religious world and the nature of charity and justice towards others.

In perusing this site, I've noticed some really interesting videos. It's sad that these aren't widely publicized, since they're so much more valuable than the typical piano-playing cat that you'll find when searching for videos on the Web. Right now, I'm listening to David Lynch, Fred Travis (spelled "Tavis" incorrectly in the credits) and John Hagelin speaking about Consciousness, Creativity, and the Brain.


Lynch's comments in that video annoy me, not because he's wholy wrong, but because he's mostly right (as much as abstract and subjective statements can be said to be "right"). I have tried to tackle this topic for years without much success, but I'll try again, here.

There are two kinds of personality in the world. Lynch is obviously the creative, abstract type. The other end of the spectrum is the rational, concrete type. If you're in the latter camp, like myself, it will be hard to hear what he has to say as anything but quackery. Concepts like "flowing pools of consciousness," don't make sense to us because they have no concrete meaning. What I've come to accept (with great trouble) is that it's OK to be abstract while making absolute statements. You can say that "life is beautiful" without having a formal definition of beauty and without contradicting the famous one-liner from The Princess Bride, "Life is pain, highness."

That is to say, Lynch's meditative, Eastern view of consciousness and the creative process isn't wrong. What's wrong is that he attempts to wrangle the concrete concepts of those on the other end of the spectrum into his world-view. It's just as much of a problem, I feel, as when the opposite happens. When, for example, pharmaceutical companies try to quantify and then marginalize the placebo effect, ultimately this yields a confused outlook because we want to believe that understanding the chemical nature of the brain gives us insight into the process of consciousness which is orders of magnitude more complex (ask a complexity theorist how complex systems can arrise from simple rules and they'll explain it better than I can). Lynch no more understands the nature of sub-atomic nuclei than the drug-maker understands the nature of self-healing. It's not that there isn't some deep connection between the two, it's that we have an extremely loose understanding of the brain and thought and of the fundamental nature of physics and our universe. When we try to bring those extremes together, the mapping is bound to fail.

So, when you watch the video that WGBH has helpfully put up, I recommend that you let your analytical mind accept the non-sensical abstractions and simultaneously caution your creative mind to stop short of believing that there is some deep understanding of the physical world being presented. There is, as I believe someone once said, a middle path.