Santa gave Francis, our four-year-old grandson, a toy named Cosmo.

From a distance, Cosmo looked like a cheap plastic stocking stuffer shaped like a tractor. But it moved in what seemed to be a purposeful way. It approached me and looked up, its digital eyes scanning me.

“That’s Daddo,” Francis said.

Cosmo nodded its head and blinked.

Then it said, “Merry Christmas, Daddo!”

In 1965, Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, postulated that the number of transistors that could be packed into a given unit of space would double about every two years while the cost per transistor would halve. The leading scientific community of that decade laughed at him. Such a pace of acceleration seemed absurd to them. But Moore was not wrong. In fact, the doubling has occurred about every 18 months.

In recent years, polymath superstar Ray Kurzweil has been predicting all sorts of modern miracles based on Moore’s Law. Kurzweil believes that advancements will speed up even faster because computer and biological technology has accelerated the nature of evolution itself.

It makes one wonder what Cosmo will evolve into.

Here’s my guess: By 2040, biological pets will be a thing of the past. In their place will be unimaginably advanced Cosmos, cuddly, loving, and supremely intelligent technological creatures whose job it will be to entertain, babysit, and socialize children.

Ah, yes. The New Year is always a good time for predictions. And although I don’t believe in betting on the future, Cosmo has inspired me to conjure up 18 more prognostications for your amusement.

 

Predictions for 2020 and Beyond 

* Donald Trump will be reelected, winning a higher percentage of Latino and African American support of any Republican president in the modern era.

* Sometime thereafter, we will have another financial crash, with real estate prices dropping 15% to 20% and the equity markets falling that much or more – this despite frantic government efforts at “quantitative easing.”

* After the crash, another effort to oust Trump from office will take place and succeed.

* Continuing innovations in technology and biology will gradually unleash a new era of economic expansion that will ameliorate the debt problem and improve the lifestyles of the middle and working classes. (The mega-rich will stay rich and the poor will stay poor, but only relatively. Absolute living conditions will improve everywhere.)

* Meanwhile, lots of ordinary things will improve. For example, in the next 3 to 5 years, weather forecasting will achieve 90% reliability for major threats such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and even forest fires.

* In the next 10 years, children around the world will be learning what their parents want them to learn by playing with addictively amusing interactive robots that will prove to be better teachers than the flesh-and-blood teachers.

* And for those worried about global warming, good news: Accelerating advances in the storage, transmission, and use of solar and wind energy will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by 30% in the next 10 years. (Mostly in the wealthier countries.)

* After decades of disappointments in the fight against cancer and heart disease, in the next 5 years breakthroughs in immunotherapy and genetic medicine will make most forms of these two primary killers treatable, in the way AIDS is treatable today.

* In the next decade, urban congestion will be greatly reduced by a combination of delivery drones (even for large objects like steel girders), driverless transport, and penalties leveraged on individually owned vehicles.

* Cryptocurrencies will not succeed as independent currencies. Instead, they will be outlawed and replaced by digital currencies issued by banks, brokerages, and other financial institutions that will allow governments to track every financial move their citizens make.

* The biggest economic challenge of the next two decades will be the addition of billions of children born in still poverty-stricken Sub-Saharan Africa… while the non-immigrant population of the “advanced” world will stagnate or fall.

* On the positive side for Africa (and India): Pneumonia, currently the “ultimate disease of poverty,” will be virtually eliminated in the next 7 years.

* During the next decade, many aging, crumbling mid-sized cities in North America will be renovated as urban populations abandon their decomposing neighborhoods and move into newer, cleaner, and less expensive ones, such as the one planned by Kevin Plank in Baltimore.

* In the next 5 years, farm animals – cows, lambs, chickens, and goats – raised in large production facilities will have better food, more space to grow, and healthful amenities such as musical and meditation treatments to improve their immune systems and fatten them up.

* In the next 2 to 3 years, most large chain stores will have eliminated checkout counters, using smart shopping carts with scanning and computing technology to process payments as items are loaded into them.

* The current price wars among ride-calling and sharing apps will end in the next 3 to 5 years, leaving only two or three companies standing. Uber will not be one of them.

* The current CBD craze will be over in the next 3 years, with 80% to 90% of the companies that are currently profiting from the craze going out of business.

* Yuval Harari will be proven right in his prediction that Homo sapiens will begin to be  (in the next 50 years) replaced by a new species of humans that are part robot and part computer.

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“The beginning is the most important part of any work.” – Plato

 HAPPY NEW YEAR!

This is exactly the right day for thinking about what you want to accomplish in 2020. You can’t do that seriously, however, unless you spend some time reviewing your success in accomplishing the goals you had for 2019.

If you have read any of the dozens of essays, books, and blog posts I’ve written about personal productivity over the past 20 years, you know that I organize my goals in four categories: health, wealth, personal, and social.

And at the beginning of each year, I challenge myself to complete a number of objectives in each of those four categories. Last year, for example, I gave myself 5 major financial goals (all of which were about preserving and protecting wealth – not adding to it). My health goals were also few in number (fitness, diet, strength, and mental acuity) but challenging (improving despite aging). My social goals were even fewer (be kinder, be more generous, pay more attention). The big category in terms of number of objectives was personal. I had several dozen projects – writing and building and collecting – that kept me busy.

It takes me less than 15 minutes to review my goals of the previous year, recognize where I met them, where I fell behind, and where I failed completely. And that helps me shape my goals for the next year.

If you wrote down goals for 2019, you might want to do the same thing. Be frank in your assessments. (Fooling oneself is much easier than fooling others.) And be realistic in setting new goals, giving yourself challenges that, based on past experience, you are confident you can achieve.

 

Contrarian Rules for Goals and a Zen Mindset for Accomplishing Them 

I don’t assign myself “stretch goals” because I’m hardwired to stretch. For me, the challenge is to be realistic about what I can do.

Contrary to what you are likely to hear from other productivity “experts,” your yearly goals should not be specific. They should not be “Write six books of 30,000 words by August  31.” They should be more like “Write several good books.”

After you’ve finished your yearly goals, you figure out how much you can reasonably accomplish each month throughout the year. Here is where you can get more specific. In January, for example, your goal for book writing might be something like: “Write 6-page outlines for 3 books.”

Then you break those monthly goals into even more specific objectives: “Write outline for one book this week.”

Keep in mind that your yearly goals should be important-but-not-urgent goals – the sort of goals that, though not urgent or even necessary, would nevertheless have a profoundly positive impact on the quality of your life.

And here’s a suggestion if you tend to beat yourself up over failing to meet your goals. This, again, is contrary to what most productivity gurus advise. They advocate a mindset of passion and zeal, of lighting a burning desire in your heart to accomplish everything you set out to do. I believe this is a big mistake. Instead, take a Zen-like approach to your New Year’s Resolutions. Write them down. Intend to accomplish them. But don’t allow yourself to care whether you do or you don’t.

You can learn to act intentionally without attachment. Remember, the way is the true goal. And movement is the reward.

There are lots of people that don’t believe in making New Year’s Resolutions. They will tell you that they are artificial and unnecessary. I think they are wrong. Dead wrong. Setting and pursuing goals the way I do has made my life immeasurably richer in all the most important ways. I believe it will have the same result for you.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. Start today. Let me know how it works.

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It’s always good to be prepared. In greeting 2020 with colleagues, friends, and family, the following sentiments may come in handy:

Toasts for the New Year 

In all this world, why I do think

There are four reasons why we drink:

Good friends, good wine, lest we be dry,

And any other reason why.

Here’s to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.

If you cheat, may you cheat death.

If you steal, may you steal a woman’s heart.

If you fight, may you fight for a brother.

And if you drink, may you drink with me.

Here’s to a long life and a merry one

A quick death and an easy one

A pretty girl and an honest one

A cold beer and another one!

In Vino Veritas. In Cervesio Felicitas. (“In wine, there is wisdom. In beer, there is joy.”)

Dance as if no one were watching,

Sing as if no one were listening,

And live every day as if it were your last.

As you slide down the banisters of life, may the splinters never point the wrong way.

May the best day of your past be the worst day of your future.

May you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live.

9.

May your right hand always be stretched out in friendship, but never in want.

And finally, from Benjamin Franklin…

10.

“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better man.”

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The history of the Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” isn’t entirely clear. The earliest known version dates back to 1780 in a children’s book titled Mirth With-out Mischief, but it had almost certainly been around for some time before that. According to Vox.com, “Some historians think the song could be French in origin, but most agree it was designed as a ‘memory and forfeits’ game, in which singers tested their recall of the lyrics and had to award their opponents a ‘forfeit’ – a kiss or a favor of some kind – if they made a mistake.”

In Christian theology, the 12 days of Christmas run from Dec. 25 (the birth of Christ) to Jan. 6 (the coming of the Magi – the Epiphany or Three Kings Day). So one interpretation is that it was written as a “catechism song” to help Catholic children remember the tenets of their faith. It works like this…

The [Purported] Symbolism Behind “The 12 Days of Christmas” 

* “true love” = God

* “me” = the person who is baptized

* “partridge in a pear tree” = Jesus Christ

* “two turtle doves” = the Old and New Testaments

* “three French hens” = faith, hope, and charity

* “four calling birds” = the four gospels and/or the four evangelists

* “five golden rings” = the first five books of the Old Testament (the history of man’s fall from grace)

* “six geese a-laying” = the six days of creation

* “seven swans a-swimming” = the seven sacraments

* “eight maids a-milking” = the eight beatitudes

* “nine ladies dancing” = the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit

* “10 lords a-leaping” = the Ten Commandments

* “11 pipers piping” = the 11 faithful apostles

* “12 drummers drumming” = the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed

This, as I say, is one interpretation. It doesn’t especially work for me. I prefer to leave the symbols less doctrinaire. But if you like to think of them that way, there you have it.

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“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.”

– Charles Dickens

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS! 

K and I are spending the yuletide with about a third of our extended family – including our three boys, their spouses, our four grandkids, and various siblings and their children. Keeping one’s family intact for 40 years is a challenge – more so today than ever. But the ROI for all that effort is more than worth it.

It will be a madhouse in the morning – 20 people opening Christmas presents. Then there is our traditional family brunch, with various gastronomic treats that K cooks up just once a year. Then, around six, we’ll welcome a hundred or so of our friends to my “cigar club” for further celebration.

And then, sometime, I’m going to take a moment for myself and say my “prayer”:

Life is a continuum of moments…

Some will be annoying. Those I will ignore.

Some will be disappointing. Those I will accept.

Some will be dangerous. Those I will respect.

Some will be hurtful. Those I will forgive.

Some will be new. Those I will welcome.

Some will be challenging. Those I will embrace.

Most will be ordinary and thus invisible. Those I will see.

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Chris said: “Setting up the tree… decorating the house. I always feel compelled to come up with something new. Not my best work this year, but sufficient enough. Sufficient enough… is that redundant?”

I said: “That’s not only redundant, it’s repetitive too.”

Andrew said: “Both of you report immediately to the Department of Redundancy Department.”

Chris said: “Monty Python. Very cool. I had forgotten about those guys.”

We did some brainstorming and found that we remembered more than… well, more than we expected to find. I’m guessing that you can add to my list…

 12 of My Favorite Monty Pythonisms 

 From Monty Python and the Holy Grail

1.

“You only killed the bride’s father, you know.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

”Didn’t mean to? You put your sword right through his head.”

“Oh dear… is he all right?”

2.

“Please. This is supposed to be a happy occasion. Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who…”

3.

“Stop. Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ‘ere the other side he see.”

 “Ask me the questions, bridge keeper. I am not afraid.”

“What… is your name?”

“My name is Sir Lancelot of Camelot.”

“What… is your quest?”

“To seek the Holy Grail.”

“What… is your favorite color?”

“Blue.”

“Right. Off you go….”

4.

“I soiled my armor, I was so scared!”

 5.

“One day, lad, all this will be yours.”

“What, the curtains?”

6.

And everyone’s favorite: “Tis but a scratch.” 

 

From Monty Python’s Life of Brian

7.

“Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

8.

“What did he say?”

“I think it was, ‘blessed are the cheese makers.’”

9.

“We are three wise men.”

“Well, what are you doing creeping around a cow shed at two o’clock in the morning? That doesn’t sound very wise to me.”

10.

“Crucifixion?”

“Ah, no. Freedom. They said I hadn’t done anything, so I can go free and live on an island somewhere.”

“Oh, that’s jolly good. Well, off you go then.”

“Nah, I’m only pulling your leg, it’s crucifixion really!”

 

From Monty Python’sThe Meaning of Life

11.

“The mill’s closed. There’s no more work. We’re destitute. I’ve got no option but to sell you all for scientific experiments.”

12.

“During the night old Perkins had his leg bitten sort of… off.”

 “There’s a lot of it about – probably a virus. Keep warm, plenty of rest, and if you’re playing any football try and favor the other leg.”

 

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“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you can see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.”–  Kurt Vonnegut

My friend Tom Dyson has just returned from his amazing journey around the world. As he put it:

“My family and I sold all our things, handed back the keys to our apartments in Delray Beach, cancelled our cell phone plans, and hit the road. Now we live like gypsies, drifting from country to country… town to town… educating our children on the road and experiencing different cultures.”

In one of his blogs from China, he talked about the huge housing and infrastructure building campaign the country has been on for at least the last 10 years. (Certainly it was in the midst of it when I was last there about five years ago.)

China is funding this immense project partly with the wealth it acquires from state-owned businesses, partly from taxes, and partly from fake money (the way the US had funded the stock market bubble during the same period).

The difference between them (the Chinese) and us (the USA) is that we are using our fake money to enrich the financial class (their wealth has increased by trillions), whereas the Chinese are building actual things – railroads, roads, and buildings.

It begs the question: Which is the smarter approach?

You decide.

Excerpts from Tom’s blog are reprinted below…

The US vs. China: Who Will Win the Fake Money Race? 

Shaoyaoju Apartment, Beijing

2,000 years ago, Emperor Qin, the first emperor of China, built an army of 7,000 full-size clay soldiers, clay horses, and bronze chariots. Each soldier had a unique face. The project took him 40 years, employed 750,000 labourers and slaves, and used the most advanced technology of the day. Then he buried it.

In 1974, some farmers, digging a well, discovered the remains of the Terracotta Army near Xi’an. Archaeologists call it the “greatest discovery of the 20th century.” Tourism promoters call it the “eighth wonder of the world.”

Today, China is building a new Terracotta Army, except the statues are not made of clay. They’re made of steel, glass, and cement. They’re 300 feet tall. And there are a lot more than 7,000 of them.

We have now been travelling around China by high-speed rail for six weeks. We have covered nearly 3,000 miles… from the Vietnam border in the far south to the Gobi desert in the far northwest to Xi’an and Chengdu in the center and now to Beijing in the northeast.

They’re building condo towers everywhere… in big cities, in towns, in villages. I remember the condo boom and all the construction cranes in Miami in 2006. Here in China, every town we pass through looks like Miami in 2006.

Sometimes, they even build condo towers in the middle of nowhere. We’ll be gazing out the window at desert or farmland when suddenly a multi-tower development will flash past the window. I’ll nudge Kate and say, “More construction.”

(We spot them by the cranes on their roofs and the empty cement shells with tarps wrapped around them.)

China has 425 cities with over a million people.

A city with a million people is a big city. Dallas has a population of 1.25 million. Miami has a population of 460,000. St. Louis has a population of 300,000. Manchester, in England, has a population of 500,000.

China is a big place.

In a previous post about this, I guessed there must be at least 10,000 towers currently under construction in China.

But after our train ride from Xi’an to Beijing today – and the hundreds of cranes we saw – I’m revising my guess from 10,000 to 100,000. That’s probably conservative…

Emperor Qin would be proud.

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“It is not easy for men to rise whose qualities are thwarted by poverty.”

– Juvenal

For as long as I can remember, raising the federal minimum wage has been an issue.

After all, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. And a full-time job at $7.25 an hour is only $15,080 a year. It’s pretty tough to support a family on that. So it’s not surprising that dozens of polls show that 60% of Americans support a higher minimum wage.

But is that really the answer to poverty in this country?

In fact, there’s considerable evidence that it would exacerbate the problem.

The Argument Against a “Solution” to Poverty That Most Americans Support  

The argument in favor of a higher minimum wage is that it will not only lift people from poverty but also reduce unemployment and create a stronger economy. And the logic that supports those claims can be persuasive. But there’s a flip side.

Employee wages weigh heavily on businesses. Especially small businesses. And the effects are seen more and more as states adopt higher minimums.

* In December 2017, New York City’s minimum wage rose from $11 to $13. Less than a year later, as a direct result of this raise, Union Square’s iconic restaurant, The Coffee Shop, was forced to close. 150 employees were out of work.

* In California, a study found that with each $1 increase in base wages for tipped employees, there was a 14% increase in Bay Area restaurant closures.

* In Maine, where the minimum wage is scheduled to go from $7.50 to $12 (a 60% increase) by 2021, a retirement home that had been in operation for over 45 years is closing its doors. 122 staff members now have to find employment elsewhere.

But one of the fastest-growing consequences of higher wages is the expedited shift to automation.

It started in the mid-1970s with the advent of self-service gas stations. Now, over the past decade, we’ve seen Blockbuster replaced by Redbox and Netflix. We’ve seen parking and toll road attendants replaced by self-service machines. And we’ve seen a rapid growth in self-service checkouts and airport ticket agents working side-by-side with check-in kiosks. McDonald’s is aiming to have a self-service kiosk added to every one of its locations by 2020. And other fast-food chains, too, including Panera and Chili’s, are beginning to embrace automation.

As Andy Puzder, the former CEO of Carl’s Jr., explains, “If you’re making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive – this is not rocket science.”

A Government-Sponsored Solution That Might Actually Work 

Most government solutions to wealth and income inequality have had undesirable consequences – creating cultures of entitlement and dependency. It’s difficult to look objectively at data about the “War on Poverty” without concluding that it has only made matters worse.

That said, it seems entirely sensible to believe that narrowing the income gap is a good goal for everyone – the poor, the middle class, and even the rich. Educational and work initiatives make some sense. It’s just that – so far, at least – the federal programs we’ve invested in have proven useless or counterproductive.

But there is one federal program that may be an exception to this dispiriting rule. It’s a program that had been around  since the 1970s: the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is a tax credit based on a fixed percentage for each dollar earned (up to the maximum). It has a proven track record. And it’s been supported by numerous economists.

A New Hampshire University survey, for example, found that 71% of the economists polled considered the EITC to be a very efficient way to address the income needs of poor families. (Only 5% of the group believed that an increase to a $15 per hour minimum wage would be effective.) And a study by economists Joseph Sabia and Robert Nielsen found that a 1% drop in state poverty rates was associated with each 1% increase in a state’s EITC.

 How does it work?

While the maximum credit depends on income, marital status and the number of children in the household are factors. In some cases, it can amount to almost 40% of a worker’s base annual salary. Plus, the income minimums are raised every year. This means that even if someone didn’t qualify for the EITC in the past, they may qualify in the future.

But despite its obvious benefits, only 20% of those who qualify claim it.

The government doesn’t advertise it, so most people don’t know about it. And even those who do know about it tend to ignore it. They assume they’re not eligible… or they have no idea how to file.  (It’s not that hard. The IRS has a very helpful tool called the EITC Assistant.)

Still, since 2017, nearly8.9 million Americans have been brought above the poverty line by taking advantage of the EITC.

I’m sure there’s plenty about the EITC that I haven’t read about. And maybe some of that is bad news. But from what I’ve read so far, it appears to be a win-win outcome that raising wages can’t seem to provide.

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“O, wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It would frae monie a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion.”

– Robert Burns

When I look at myself in the mirror, it is always from the same perspective: standing directly in front of it, chest out, stomach in. I look pretty good that way. Reasonably trim and muscular for a man my age. But every now and then I accidently catch myself in a sideways pose. That is less pleasant. I look thick, almost apelike.

I suppose I could slim down by losing 20 pounds, but it’s easier to look at myself from a flattering angle.

We are told that being honest about ourselves is a virtue. And perhaps it is. But we also know that people that have unrealistically positive self-images are happier than people that don’t.

I have many faults. And for the most part I don’t like admitting them. I prefer to view my behavior from a perspective that is flattering, an angle that hides these blemishes from my sight.

Yes, we can learn to turn a blind eye to our shortcomings. And that can protect us from the mental self-flagellation we might otherwise endure. But making a habit of this has consequences. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “A man who lies to himself… comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anyone around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.”

And self-delusion can last only so long. Sooner or later, we will be forced to see our actions bluntly – the way others see them – and this can be painful. It can lead to anxiety and even depression.

So do we have to choose? Is life an ongoing struggle between the stress of playing blind and the pain of being forced to see? Are we locked into the tragic choice between hamartia and agnagnorisis?

AJ is one of the most brilliant marketing minds on the planet. We became acquainted almost 40 years ago when my boss at the time got into a joint venture with him.

The deal made both of them a lot of money, but it ended badly when they argued about dividing the spoils. AJ’s behavior after that was reprehensible. I was so disturbed by it that once, at an industry event, I actually challenged him to a duel. He declined.

Years later, we reconnected. I was still angry with him – but before I had a chance to bring it up, he said, very casually, “But of course I’m a hypocrite and a scoundrel.”

The moment he said that, I forgave him.

A big lesson for me. One I’m still trying to learn. 

I’ve been wondering why I like to hide my shortcomings. It’s not because I want to hide them from others. I know that’s not possible. They see them more quickly and more clearly than I can.

No, the reason I don’t admit to them is because I don’t want to give friends and colleagues an opportunity to acknowledge them. I don’t want to hear them saying, “Yes, Mark. You really are an arrogant, insensitive asshole.”

Of course, if they are already thinking that, I am not avoiding their condescension or disappointment or antipathy. I am simply making it more difficult for them to voice those feelings.

And that’s why AJ’s strategy was so brilliant. In admitting his faults, he was not evincing guilt or shame. He was only being honest about the effect his behavior had on others. And the reason he didn’t display guilt or shame is because before admitting his shortcomings, he had already faced them, and acknowledged them, and forgiven himself for them.

Another way of putting this is that guilt or shame, however justified, is a burden – one that can only be removed by the person that feels it.

Ben Franklin said that self-deception is much more common than falling victim to the deceptions of others.

So here’s the question: What are you fooling yourself about?

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“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” – John Keats

Art and Science, Beauty and Truth, Straining and Relaxation, Aristotle and Plato, Iris Murdoch and Music… in One Lesson 

I read about Plato in college. I read his work in graduate school. At the same time, I was reading Plato’s dialogues, I was also reading Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student.

There is, as you no doubt know, a big difference between Plato and Aristotle. Plato was an idealist. Aristotle was an empiricist. Plato thought like a poet. Aristotle thought like a scientist. I came away from that experience with a great admiration for Aristotle and a sympathetic disdain for Plato. And I maintained that prejudice until about 10 or 15 years ago, when I began reading about quantum physics.

I found in quantum physics the same objections I found in Plato. The theories contradicted my observed experience. Time for me was fixed and linear. Space was space – not something that could curve into itself.

I still don’t understand quantum physics. But I cannot deny that its theories – at least some of them – have been proven to be true. They have proven themselves in the development of space travel and all sorts of modern contraptions that we use on a daily basis, including cellular phones.

And now, as I approach my seventies and can feel the acceleration of time, I have to wonder whether Plato was onto something real – that his theory about how the universe works was, like Einstein’s, in some deeper-than-science way true.

For example, in The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch makes an interesting observation about beauty. She says that you cannot experience it fully with your rational mind. You need a “shift of consciousness” from your everyday way of thinking to a sort of transcendent awareness. It’s a bit like a good trip on LSD, I suppose.

Nature, Murdoch believes, is always and infinitely capable of providing this experience. But the individual is not always and infinitely capable of having it. To have it, Murdoch says, one has to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”

It’s that phrase – “the world as it really is” – that had me thinking about Plato. You may remember the dialogue where Plato explains the allegory of the cave. It’s about illusion vs. reality. The idea: Because of the limited nature of  human consciousness, we are incapable of understanding the true nature of reality. It’s as if we are trapped in a cave where we cannot see the real world outside. We see only shadowy figures reflected on the walls – and since that is the only thing we see, we believe that is all there is.

Coming back to Murdoch’s observation about beauty…

When, for example, I am studying a particular artist, I can come to understand his innovations, his historical importance, and even why his art is, by some, so greatly admired. This is a sort of understanding that is beneficial when it comes to the business of buying and selling art or for talking about an artist’s work with an interested party. But this sort of understanding gives me no help whatsoever in experiencing what is beautiful or wonderful about the art object. To have that, I must stop myself  from straining to understand it and allow myself to be absorbed by it, And this I can do only by relaxing my neocortical brain and, as Murdoch puts it, experiencing the painting in “the deepest part of my soul.”

And this takes me to a thesis I’ve been working on for quite some time and the reason I’m dragging you into this: that our knowledge of the universe and our experience of living can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation – of contraction/concentration and expansion/relaxation.

Human consciousness is capable of doing both. And both produce real benefits. Concentration gives us the means to advance ourselves and our surroundings in the tangible world, the world that Aristotle (and Newton) sought to understand. But expansion – relaxing the mind – gives us a way to know the intangible world, the subatomic world that I’m now thinking Plato was trying to understand.

Does that make sense?

Think about music. Listening to music – instrumental music – can give me this deeper and truer understanding of the world beneath the physical world without much trouble. I can listen to Bach or Beethoven or (especially) Mozart and go easily to that place that Murdoch is talking about.

I can experience what TS Eliot called “the peace… which passeth all understanding.”

I think music works best in understanding how this relaxed, “quantum” experience of truth (and beauty) works because it lacks language. Or rather because the language of music is non-verbal and therefore not cognitive. It provides a porthole through which I can slip into the “real” world of Plato and Einstein and Murdoch.

But you decide.

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