Saturday, December 13, 2008

Consider the Philosopher - On David Foster Wallace

Great essay on the philosophical side of David Foster Wallace.

Consider the Philosopher

Published: December 12, 2008

With the death of David Foster Wallace, the author of “Infinite Jest,” who took his own life on Sept. 12, the world of contemporary American fiction lost its most intellectually ambitious writer. Like his peers Richard Powers and William T. Vollmann, Wallace wrote big, brainy novels that were encyclopedically packed with information and animated by arcane ideas. In nonfiction essays, he tackled a daunting range of highbrow topics, including lexicography, poststructuralist literary theory and the science, ethics and epistemology of lobster pain. He wrote a book on the history and philosophy of the mathematics of infinity. Even his signature stylistic device — the extensive use of footnotes and endnotes — was a kind of scholarly homage.

But Wallace was also wary of ideas. He was perpetually on guard against the ways in which abstract thinking (especially thinking about your own thinking) can draw you away from something more genuine and real. To read his acutely self-conscious, dialectically fevered writing was often to witness the agony of cognition: how the twists and turns of thought can both hold out the promise of true understanding and become a danger to it. Wallace was especially concerned that certain theoretical paradigms — the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever trickery of postmodernism — too casually dispense with what he once called “the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.” He called for a more forthright, engaged treatment of these basic truths. Yet he himself attended to them with his own fractured, often-esoteric methods. It was a defining tension: the very conceptual tools with which he pursued life’s most desperate questions threatened to keep him forever at a distance from the connections he struggled to make.

Given his considerable intellectual gifts and large cult following, it may come as a surprise to learn that Wallace’s one formal, systematic contribution to the world of ideas was never published and remains almost completely unknown. This is his undergraduate honors thesis in philosophy — “Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality” — which he submitted for a degree at Amherst College in 1985. Its obscurity is easy enough to understand. A highly specialized, 76-page work of semantics and metaphysics, it is not for the philosophically faint of heart. Brace yourself for a sample sentence: “Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji–jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs (), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.” There are reasons that he’s better known for an essay about a boat.

For all its inscrutability, though, the thesis represents an important phase in Wallace’s development. Once its goals and ambitions are understood, the paper casts a revealing light on the early stages of his struggle to use the powers of his formidable mind for the higher good: to protect against the seductions of the intellect, and to find solid ground for his most urgent and heartfelt convictions.
Read the whole essay.

Integral Review Volume 4, No. 2, December 2008

The new issue of Integral Review - Volume 4, No. 2, December 2008 - is online and filled with interesting content.
Volume 4, No. 2
December 2008

Issue's Abstracts

Editorial: Co-defining, Reflexive Recursions
Sara Ross

Peer Reviewed Works

“Such a Body We Must Create:” New Theses on Integral Micropolitics
Daniel Gustav Anderson

Validation of Theory: Exploring and Reframing Popper’s Worlds

Steven E. Wallis

Editorially Reviewed Works

Integral Evolution: An Interview with David Loye

Appendix: The Global Sounding
Russ Volckmann

The Toxic Effect on Children of a Degraded U.S. Society, Family, and Educational Context: How Will This Nation Respond?

Carol Hoare

In Search of Narratives and A Tour to the Flea Market of Signification
Sayyed Mohsen Fatemi

The Resurrection…Paradisio
Andrew Campbell

Article Review: Advanced Change Theory Revisited: An Article Critique
R. Scott Pochron

Book Review: Leadership Ethics: An Introduction, by Terry Price
Nathan Harter

Book review: The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, by James Gustav Speth
Jan Inglis

Douglas Rushkoff - Open Source Democracy

A Facebook and blogger friend, Avi, posted this on his profile page - good stuff.
PUNKCAST1467 - Nov 5 2008. In the fifth lecture in Evan Korth's NYU Computers and Society course featured author, thinker and professor Douglas Rushkoff. His topic:"Open Source Democracy."

Following is the foreword, by Douglas Alexander, to Rushkoff's paper on the same topic:

"The internet has become an integral part of our lives because it is interactive. That means people are senders of information, rather than simply passive receivers of 'old' media. Most importantly of all, we can talk to each other without gatekeepers or editors. This offers exciting possibilities for new social networks, which are enabled - but not determined - by digital technology.

In the software industry, the open source movement emphasizes collective cooperation over private ownership. This radical idea may provide the biggest challenge to the dominance of Microsoft. Open source enthusiasts have found a more efficient way of working by pooling their knowledge to encourage innovation.

All this is happening at a time when participation in mainstream electoral politics is declining in many Western countries, including the US and Britain. Our democracies are increasingly resembling old media, with fewer real opportunities for interaction.

What, asks Douglas Rushkoff in this original essay for Demos, would happen if the 'source code' of our democratic systems was opened up to the people they are meant to serve? 'An open source model for participatory, bottom-up and emergent policy will force us to confront the issues of our time,' he answers.

That's a profound thought at a time when governments are recognising the limits of centralised political institutions. The open source community recognises that solutions to problems emerge from the interaction and participation of lots of people, not by central planning.

Rushkoff challenges us all to participate in the redesign of political institutions in a way which enables new solutions to social problems to emerge as the result of millions interactions. In this way, online communication may indeed be able to change offline politics."

Friday, December 12, 2008

William Irwin Thompson - The Shift from Capitalism to the Global Noetic Economy

Another highly entertaining and thought-provoking article from William Irwin Thompson at Wild River Review. He gives a brief overview of the evolution of Western Civilization, then offers the next stage, the Noetic Economy.
Thinking Otherwise

By William Irwin Thompson

"We Irish think otherwise."
Bishop Berkeley

The Shift from Capitalism to the Global Noetic Economy

Let's review. The hunting and gathering economy was based upon following the movements of animals and the flowering of plants according to the seasons. It was a process and not a place, and no one had a fixed address. Gathering led to spilled seeds and spontaneous gardens propping up near the temporary shelters, and as animals hung around to live off the scraps of messy humans--as foxes and bears are doing once again in our suburbs--they slowly became domesticated. Humans found themselves living in fixed places even before irrigation agriculture developed. Agriculture introduced us to living in place with fixed assets like heavy grinding stones and huts for food storage. What the locals didn't have in place they found they could get through trade, so Chatalhoyuk's obsidian made its way down to Jericho, and Jericho's cowrie shells showed up in Anatolia. Hunters, like all NRA conservatives resistant to change, were fuming at the salads of settled life, but soon found that their bows and arrows could be aimed at humans to take what they had produced, so hunting grew into raids, and raids grew into warfare. With medieval feudalism, this system of warfare and land tenure grew into its ultimate expression. But trading had also grown with warfare, so with the Crusades introducing the European savages to the advanced civilizations of the East, financial instruments in bills of trade and double-entry book-keeping created a new international merchant class. Even traditional military knights, like the Knights Templar, found themselves becoming international bankers, and these new bankers began to introduce internationally accepted currencies to support trade. And so the Crusades led to the Italian Renaissance and the Medici bankers. But with this change from feudalism to incipient capitalism came a shift in the locus of identity. Knighthood and religion derived their source of identity from a fixed place and a fixed place in time, the past. But capitalism derived its identity from the future, on indebtedness. But now at the end of the era of modernism, our future is looking grim, as debt clogs our arteries, and currencies are becoming too weak to transport value. The old economy is dying, but lacking knowledge of any other way to go, we seek to insert artificial life support into corporations like GM and put off the inevitable death of industrial capitalism. Let us, merely for the sake of using our imaginations, accept the fact that the old capitalist economy is dead, and that returning to older primitive economies in barter or communism is clearly regressive. Living as we now are in an electronic, technological, and scientifically generated economy, we need to find the circulation systems that allow us to continue to grow, just as irrigation systems allowed agriculture and city-states to grow in the fourth millennium B.C.E. Let us call this new society a noetic economy, and say that Russia, China, and the U.S.A. are all seeking to apply inadequate communist and capitalist interpretative ideas to its governance. They all are doomed to failure, and, indeed, are already failing. Now just as feudalism held knightly and monarchical estates as its assets, and nation-states held companies and corporations as its assets, the global
ecumene now holds universities as its assets. Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, the Ecole Polytechnique, ETH, and the University of Tokyo are what U.S. Steel, Ford, BP, and Siemens were to industrial times. Nation-states now are merely banks, and that is one reason banks are melting down into the Fed and the U.S. Treasury. Yes, of course, if the U.S. just keeps on printing money, the dollar will become worthless, and that is why the nations cannot continue on their Breton-Woods policy of basing world trade on one national currency.

The Banks used to print their own money, and then the nation-state took that task over. Now the nation-states need to stop printing their own money and create a global currency to finance trade and credit, but a currency that is not based upon a single national currency. The Euro was a first step, but now the Pound, the Dollar, the Ruble, the Yen, and the Yuan need to become integrated--not based on exchange rates--but on a mutual agreement to support world trade and credit through the creation of a new instrument. Since the price of energy is global, and resources as well as carbon footprints are global, it might just work to the good, if products were priced according to their global value and not artificially supported by national pollution and serf and child labor. To issue this instrument from a single world capital would be a mistake, for obvious reasons of national vanities and competition, so some off-shore central spot, like Santa Claus's North Pole would be best. Given global warming and the opening of the Northwest Passage that might not be such a joke in the near future. In the meantime, Basel and the Bank of International Settlements might be the place to take the first step.

Cultural Historian William Irwin Thompson writes regularly for Wild River Review

Charles Staley - My Strategy For "Surviving" The Holidays

The holiday season need not be a time a dietary insanity and inevitable weight gain. Strength coach Charles Staley offers his advice for how to navigate the season of temptations.
My Strategy For "Surviving" The Holidays

By Charles Staley, B.Sc, MSS
Director, Staley Training Systems

Getting through the winter holiday season without gaining 10-15 pounds never seemed like much of an issue to me personally, but based on all the questions I've been fielding about it lately, I thought I'd share my own thoughts on effectively handling the period of time stretching roughly from December 24th to January 1st.

First, Keep Things In Perspective

We're only talking about 9 days here, max. So even thought I hate doing thermodynamic "worst case" hypotheticals, remember that if you ate 3500 calories in excess of your metabolic requirements each of those 9 days, you'd only gain 9 pounds.

Now, I gotcha- no one wants to gain 9 pounds over the holidays, but look how much work it'd take to do that: if your daily caloric requirement is 2500 calories, you'd have to eat 6000 calories a day, every day for the entire 9 days to gain 9 pounds of fat! Using a less extreme and slightly more likely scenario, gaining 5 pounds over the holidays would require eating about 4500 calories a day for 9 days. That's a lot, don't you agree?

Having Your Cake And Eating It Too

Most people have time off from work over the holidays, which theoretically should open up some time and energy to get in some extra-productive training- that's for starters. Yeah, you'll have family in town, you'll have parties to attend, but the point remains. So there shouldn't really be any reason to become totally sedentary for 9 days.

Given that, why not plan a handful of strategic eating opportunities, enjoy the experience, and leave the guilt-trip for your in-laws? For example, why not completely gorge yourself on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and likewise on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day? That's 4 days total.

If you ate an additional 3500 calories on each of those 4 days, you might potentially gain 4 pounds. But- and this is a significant point- that's a lot of extra eating. Even if you ate yourself silly on those 4 days, you're unlikely to reach the 14,000-calorie surplus necessary to gain 4 pounds.

Draw A Line In The Sand- Somewhere.

Now in case you're thinking I live in a cave somewhere and don't really understand that the average American starts the "holidays" a few days before Thanksgiving and ends them in mid-January, believe me, I get it. So if you're one of those people, let me suggest a neat little self-help tactic that I really like. It's called "setting boundaries." When it comes to your food, training, and general lifestyle habits, you should have a certain line you won't cross. Ever.

The list can be as big or as small as you need to suit your own needs, but thing of these boundaries as the cornerstones of your personal philosophy of living. Make these boundaries personal- they don't have to make sense to anyone else but you.

For example, one of the "lines I won't cross" is eating in bed. It's just something I don't do. Eating and sleeping are separate activities in my mind, and I just personally find it slovenly to eat in bed. Now that might not have any meaning for you, so come up with your own boundaries- basically, your own personal "rules" of behavior.

Then, Have Fun!

One nice aspect of having your boundaries is that you know when you're inside of them, and also when you're outside of them. For me, I eat whatever I want on Christmas day and also on New Year's day. On those 2 days, I can totally enjoy myself food-wise because on all the other days, I followed the rules. If you don't have this type of structure, you're always living in a guilt-laden "no man's land."

Letting loose is just as important as discipline by the way- without one side of the coin, you can't have the other. Having a day where you eat whatever you want helps you to relax and recharge. So go eat a doughnut- right now. I'll take it as a sign that you understood the message I'm trying to get across in this article.

Glimpse into a Poet's Mind

This is a very cool article from The Economist on the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney - a review of a new book of interviews with poet.

Book details

Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney
By Dennis O’Driscoll

Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 522 pages; $32. Faber and Faber; £22.50

Buy it at

Glimpse into a poet's mind

Dec 11th 2008
From The Economist print edition

BORN a Catholic in Unionist Ulster, this eloquent son of a taciturn cattle-dealer is one of the most celebrated poets of the post-war era. For all that, there is no biography of Seamus Heaney, and no edition of his collected poems. These interviews by Dennis O’Driscoll, an old friend, were carried out over many years mainly by post and must, for the time being, serve as biography and autobiography.

The book is both an account of the poet’s life, which began in 1939 at Mossbawn Farm in County Derry, and an examination of his verse. Perhaps most of all it is a foray into the workings of a poet’s mind, a “journey into the wideness of language”, as he said in a speech accepting the Nobel prize. Poetry crept up on Mr Heaney in 1962, and never let go.

He is best known for the way in which he has mined his own life for the matter of his poems. What he writes about is solidly grounded in a sense of place; his language is rooted in the speech patterns of Ulster, with something of that Derry quality of “phonetic grunting”. He recalls, lovingly, the old black leatherette sofa on which he and his siblings played; the magical dial of the radio; the horse which rubbed its flanks along the wall.

He has a strong purchase on earth-bound things, an enduring commitment to places that, as he says, “unlock the word-hoard”. He speaks of what a poem does for its author, restoring something to the self. Good poems are not willed into being but come from things remembered with a certain aura. “It is a matter of waft rather than word-choice,” he tells us, with a characteristically musical turn of phrase.

Poems can also be unpredictable and unbiddable creatures. They can arrive at all hours of the day or night, and woe unto to the poet who is not ready to receive them. The first line of a poem called “Bogland”, for example, came to him as he was putting his right leg into his trousers, he recalls. But when a poem has come through, and has been tested to its limits by revision and repeated re-readings, it can seem as solid as an iron bar.

His engagement with the politics of Ulster in particular, and Ireland in general, has been marked by caution. There is too much point-scoring and too much fervour. A poem is a truth-telling place and not a killing field. And what, in short, would Mr Heaney say that poetry was good for in an age which reads so little of it? “Poetry”, he tells us, “constitutes a boost to the capacity for discrimination and resistance.”

Integral Recovery - Surfaces and Depths

I liked this article from Integral Recovery - on Surfaces and Depths - quite a bit. This is a useful reminder and a useful practice for all of us. More below.

Surfaces and Depths

One of the main insights of the great mystics, and one of the essential truths of Integral Recovery is that all suffering comes from identification with surfaces. This is not a dogma that one has to believe or buy, based on what I or anyone else is saying, this is an experiential given that one will discover as one practices and plunges again and again into the depths of one’s own being in daily contemplative and meditative practice. And yes, again, daily contemplative interior practice is an essential part of Integral Recovery practice. Someone recently defined practice as “cultivation through repetition.” This is the best short definition I think I’ve heard. What are we cultivating? Through exercise and nutrition: strength, health and vitality; through our cognitive work: new perspectives, knowledge and wisdom; through our emotional and shadow work: freedom from the dysfunctional aspects of our past programming, and the freedom not to get lost in our current drama; through our spiritual practice: the ability to live our lives from our core, which means our best and truest self. This means going beyond the apparent to the essential. We cultivate all of these qualities by the constant repetitive exercise of these four essential aspects of our selves: body, mind, heart, and soul.

As Marco Morelli once told me, daily practice is equivalent to keeping the fire going under the pot. To keep the fire of transformation and growth going, one has to keep the heat up. If one approaches the project of transformation and transmutation piecemeal, or sporadically, the desired changes simply will not happen. Again, the call and challenge of Integral Recovery is daily Integral Practice.

One of the main problems that I have seen for people on this path is the fear that arises often when one is doing the work. The problem is not that “oh, this doesn’t work,” but “this is too much!” When the darkness and the pain and the chaos and the dark nights emerge, the natural tendency is to run as quickly as possible from the darkness, and even the light. It was this same attempt to avoid unpleasant and unwanted states that lead to using drugs and subsequent dependency in the first place. As Bill Harris has said for those using Holosync and facing the chaos that necessarily comes up, “you should high five your partner,” because chaos is the mother of evolution and when chaos kicks in, you are getting ready for what Prigogyne called the “escape into higher order.” If one does not short circuit the process and stays with it, one will transform and grow. How do we do this? By continuing to expand, invite, and allow the process of going from chaos into higher order to continue. We can’t control the chaos, but we can invite it: from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly. Not just once, but over and over again: the constant process of recreation (death and rebirth), expansion, evolution and growth.

Read the whole article.

For me, this is the key passage that resonated from this article:
To be changed, transformed, to move to the next level or stage we must “let the darkness come upon us,” and let ourselves move through the darkness of the birth canal in which our old ideas, beliefs, and identities die and are reborn again and again. How do we do this? By continuing to expand and become identified with the context, the Witness, and not the objects that arise.
When we are caught up in the nigredo, to use an alchemical term, it's easy to become identified with the contents of the shadow that are now so clear to us. These disowned or exiled parts - freed from the personal unconscious often for the first time - want to take over the system (the self) and have their time in the sun.

Like the above quote suggests, we need to stay centered in the Witness, the observing self, or our Buddhanature, whichever term you want to use. When we identify with the "objects" - those exiled or disowned parts - we can get derailed from the growth project not just in the short term, but for days or weeks at a time.

I'll close this post with another quote from the article, one that reiterates something I wrote about the other day - crisis is the greatest possible teacher.
We must be willing to cross the threshold from the known into the unknown. We must enter the dragon’s lair, the dark cavern and face our own demons to find the treasures that lie beyond our darkness and fears. By our willingness to take this journey we find our medicine, and power: that is our gift to the world, our payback to life. This is a journey that we must be willing to take again and again, through fear, darkness, and chaos, into wisdom, strength and compassion. Over and over again. Not just once (that would be nice!), stress, chaos, crisis, the mother of evolution.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Junk Science Alert - Low Carb Diet Is Bad For Thinking And Memory

I can usually just ignore bad science, unless it's being proliferated in a field that I care about. That's exactly what happened today with a study on low-carb diets and cognitive function. I've been living a low-carb life for nearly two years now, and have done my research into its benefits and risks, so I know my stuff in this area.

Here are the results Medical News Today posted:
Dr Holly Taylor, professor of psychology at Tufts and corresponding author of the study, said the findings showed that:

"The food you eat can have an immediate impact on cognitive behavior."

"The popular low-carb, no-carb diets have the strongest potential for negative impact on thinking and cognition," she added.

Taylor's co-authors and research colleagues were Professor Robin Kanarek, former undergraduate Kara Watts and research associate Kristen D'Anci.

Our brain cells need glucose to work, but they have no way of storing it so they rely on a continuous supply via the bloodstream. The researchers had a hunch that reducing carbohydrate intake would reduce the body's ability to keep the brain supplied with glucose and therefore affect cognition, since glucose comes from breaking down carbohydrates.

For the study, Taylor and colleagues recruited 19 women aged 22 to 55 and let them each choose to go on either a low carb or low calorie diet as recommended by the American Dietetic Association. Nine of them chose the low carb diet and the other 10 chose the low calorie diet.

Altogether the participants attended five assessment sessions. Session 1 was just before they started on their chosen diet, sessions 2 and 3 were during the first week of dieting (when the low-carb dieters eliminated carbohydrates), and sessions 4 and 5 were in weeks 2 and 3, after the low-carb dieters started eating carbohydrates again.

During the assessment sessions the dieters performed a range of tests that measured attention, short and long term memory, visual attention and spatial memory. They also answered questions about how hungry they felt and their mood.

The results showed that:
  • Low carb dieters showed a gradual decrease on memory tasks compared with low-calorie dieters.

  • Reaction time for the low-carb dieters was slower, and their visual-spatial memory was not as good as that of the low-calorie dieters.

  • But low-carb dieters responded better than low-calorie dieters in the attention-vigilance tasks.

  • This last result is consistent with previous studies that found people on high protein or high fat diets showed short term improvements in attention.

  • Hunger levels did not vary between the two diet groups, and the only difference in mood was that the low-calorie dieters felt more confusion during the middle period of the study.
Taylor said:

"Although the study had a modest sample size, the results showed a clear difference in cognitive performance as a function of diet."

"The data suggest that after a week of severe carbohydrate restriction, memory performance, particularly on difficult tasks, is impaired," she added.
OK, I'll be the first to admit that during the FIRST WEEK of a low-carb diet, cognitive function IS impaired. It generally takes the body and the brain 1-4 weeks to adjust to ketones for energy rather than the glucose it gets from carbohydrate consumption.

During that adjustment period, people tend to feel physically sluggish, mentally slow, and emotionally volatile. This seems to be exactly what the study found.

But the brain is quite capable of functioning properly on ketones, which are a unique form of energy produced from the metabolism of proteins and fats. This is from the site:
It's a common misconception, even among doctors, that the brain can only use glucose for fuel. In actuality, it can burn either glucose or ketones, but under normal circumstances ketones aren't produced by the body. Most of the time, everyone in the world has their brain burning glucose. The only time the body would create and burn ketones in large quantities is when insufficient glucose is available as a fuel source. The way to make glucose (a basic sugar) unavailable, is to simply restrict carbohydrate consumption to 30g/day or less. For example, if you stop eating all carbs at, say, 6:00 PM on Sunday, and then do a heavy weightlifting workout Monday and Tuesday, this will deplete your liver and bloodstream of and glucose, and your muscles of glycogen. At that point, your liver will start producing ketones, so the brain has a fuel to work with, and if you consume no carbohydrates at all, the body will start converting protein into glucose as it will still need at least 30g glucose per day.
The following is from the Wikipedia entry on ketones:
The brain, in particular, relies heavily on ketone bodies as a substrate for lipid synthesis and for energy during times of reduced food intake. At the NIH, Dr. Richard Veech refers to ketones as "magic" in their ability to increase metabolic efficiency, while decreasing production of free radicals, the damaging byproducts of normal metabolism. His work has shown that ketone bodies may treat neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease,[4] and the heart and brain operate 25% more efficiently using ketones as a source of energy.[5] Research has also shown ketones play a role in reducing epileptic seizures with the so-called high-fat, near-zero carbohydrate Ketogenic Diet. [1]
So, clearly, the brain can function on ketones and does not need glucose as its primary energy source.

If the study above had gone on for a month, they would likely have found this to be true. But they only kept the low-carb subejcts on the diet for a week which, especially for the first time doing low-carbs, is not enough time to adjust to ketones for energy (and it ignores the fact that most of those subjects were still using glycogen for energy over the first 3-4 days of the study - it takes that long to deplete muscle and liver glycogen stores).

All of this makes me wonder who funded the research - maybe one of those pseudo-scientific PETA organizations, but who knows. Either way, it's bad science.

Satire - President To Face Down Monster Attack, Own Demons In Action-Packed Schedule

Some nice humor from The Onion News Network.

President To Face Down Monster Attack, Own Demons In Action-Packed Schedule

How Culture and Consciousness Intertwine

I liked this interesting article from Rise of the Innerpreneur. It's a fairly useful article considering that it comes from a business oriented site. The article basically offers an integral stage model, based on Jean Gebser's original work in this area (which both Spiral Dynamics and Ken Wilber's work have benefited from). Very cool to see this on a business site.

I'm not sure I but the interpretations of absolute and relative consciousness for each and every stage - seems the author might not have a clear understanding of absolute reality, at least from a Buddhist perspective.

How Culture and Consciousness Intertwine

December 9, 2008 - Thoughts on Growing Your Self

When it comes to consciousness, there are really two forms that exist, absolute consciousness and relative consciousness.

What is Absolute Consciousness

Absolute consciousness is your moment to moment awareness of everything in the world. I am aware of the computer screen in front of me and the Mulder and Scully Barbie dolls smiling down at me from their shrine on my shelf. I am aware of the snow falling on my skylight and the wind rustling my window panes. All of these things are arising in my pure or absolute awareness.

What is Relative Consciousness

Relative consciousness is how each of us interpret that absolute experience of consciousness. As you know, the interpretations of an experience can vary widely from person to person. What creates these varying interpretations is the developmental stage you are in and the cultural values you hold.

The easiest way to understand these developmental stages is through the names we give them. Jean Gebser, an early 20th century Renaissance man, identified that human consciousness and culture have developed over time through a fluid and hierarchical sequence of stages. He identified that the “mutations” in the way humanity interprets reality have been occurring throughout history and continue today.

Go read the whole post.

Here are the full stages of development that Gebser outlined, with more in-depth information about each stage (from An Overview of the Work of Jean Gebser):

The Archaic structure of consciousness

The Archaic structure of consciousness is perhaps the most difficult to understand, for it is the one most removed from our present-day way of thinking. Stated succinctly, it can be likened to zero dimensional mentation, a world devoid of any perspectivity at all. It is a stated in which the holder of consciousness is perhaps only minimally aware of himself or his relationship to the world around him. According to Feuerstein, this structure denotes "a consciousness of maximum latency and minimum transparency."[5] The term "archaic" as used here is derived from the Greek arce, meaning inception, or origin. Origin (or Ursprung, in the original German) is the source from which all springs, but it is that which springs forth itself. It is the essence which is behind and which underlies consciousness. As Gebser understands the term, "conscious is neither knowledge nor conscience but must be understood for the time being in the broadest sense as wakeful presence."[6] This presence, or being present, excludes two further overpowering by the past (past-orientation) or any future-oriented finality. He writes:

It is our task to presentiate the past in ourselves, not to lose the present to the transient power of the past. This we can achieve by recognizing the balancing power of the latent "future" with its character of the present, which is to say, its potentiality for consciousness.[7]

At the origin, there is not past to overwhelm and the future is complete potentiality. Consequently, that which we understand to intuit consciousness to be is qualitatively different from this original structure. What hampers any investigation into it is the fact that we have no records, no written testimony, regarding it. It is a state that is swallowed by the primal shadows of a far-distant past. It is referred to in myths and legends, but these references are of a much later time. About all we can say in this regard is that within the Archaic structure the consciousness is quite undifferentiated; it is just there, and things just happen. Man is still unquestionably part of the whole of the universe in which he finds himself. The process of individuation of consciousness, in any sense of the word, has not taken place. This type of consciousness "can be likened to a dimly lit mist devoid of shadows."[8] This is not consciousness in any sense that we understand it today. Instead, it can be likened to a state of deep sleep; one that eludes the specification of particularity or uniqueness.

The Magic structure of consciousness

Around some unspecified time far back in our past, a change took place. Man entered into a second phase of development and gained a new structure of consciousness, the Magical structure. This structure is characterized by five primary characteristics: (1) its egolessness, (2) its spacelessness and timelessness, (3) its pointlike-unitary world, (4) its interweaving with nature, and (5) its magical reaction to the world.[9] A rudimentary self- sense was emerging and language is the real product of this change. Words as vehicles of power are typical of this time and structure; incantations as precursors to prayer emerged. Consciousness, in this phase, is characterized by man's intimate association with nature.

This is perhaps the most notable characteristic regarding this structure. Man, at this time, does not really distinguish himself apart from nature. He is a part of all that surrounds him; in the earliest stages it is hard to conceive that he views himself apart from his environment. The plants, animals and other elements of his surroundings share the same fate as he does; they experience in a similar manner. Latency is still dominant; little is transparent. Magic we can define in agreement with Gustav Meyrink as doing without knowing,[10] and it is magic man who is engaged in this activity in all aspects of his existence. The hunting and gathering, the quest for survival are all activities that consume most of his waking hours. But in the quiet of the evening around the fire; there is time for reflection of sorts. The activities of the day were codified (in speech) and recounted. Memory was collective, tribal, and all things were shared and experienced by all. The "I" is not a factor; the "we" is dominant.

This is a one-dimensional, pre-perspectival, point-like existence that occurs in a dream- like state. Unlike the dreamlessness of the previous structure, a recognition is developing in man that he is something different from that around him. Not fully awake to who he is or what his role in the world is, man is recognizing his self as an entity. The forms of expression for this structure can be found in the art and other artifacts that have been recovered from this time. Graven images and idols are what first come to mind. However, ritual should also be considered here, for it is in the specific and directed execution of certain actions and gestures that conveys much about this consciousness structure. Feuerstein feels that this structure persisted till around 40,000 BC and the advent of the Cro-Magnons.

Another feature of this structure that we should bring to mind is its spacelessness and timelessness. The idea that space and time are illusions derives from this stage in our development as human beings. The fact that this is one of the first lessons one learns when embarking upon the esoteric path is further evidence of this idea. To Magic Man, closely linked as he is with others of like mind, space and time need not concern him. In fact, I am not convinced that he would understand them anyway, for there is no need that he do so. Magic, however, is very much alive today, and it comes as no surprise (nor should it be) that there is such a strong interest in magic today. It seems that the fast growing branches of occult study seem to be Wicca (overlayed as it is with feminism) and similar earth magic(k) studies. What is more, it is the most vital and emotional of all structures. We live in very decisive times, potentially catastrophic times. This is a time when emotion rises near the surface of our consciousness and it is here that magic manifests itself. The proliferation of stories and films dealing with Voodoo and similar matters (e.g. The Serpent and the Rainbow) further substantiate our claim. Yet, this is not the only structure that seems to be making a comeback these days.

The Mythical structure of consciousness

With the advent of the Cro-Magnons, man became a tool-making individual, also one who formed into larger social structures. As Feuerstein points out, it is clear from the archaeological finds that the Cro-Magnons had evolved a symbolic universe that was religious and shamanistic. Part of this appears to have been a keen interest in calendric reckoning, and with it we may presume the existence of a fairly complex mythology.[11] This structure can be considered two-dimensional since it is characterized by fundamental polarities. Word was the reflector of inner silence; myth was the reflector of the soul.[12] Religion appears as the interaction between memory and feeling.[13] Man is beginning to recognize himself as opposed to others. The next 30,000 odd years or so spent developing these various mythologies. Language is becoming ever more important, it will be noted, and not only receptive, but active, language at that. Not the ear, but the mouth is important in making transparent what is involved in being and life. The mouth now becomes the spiritual organ. We witness, as well, the initial concretization of the "I" of man.

Many myths deal explicitly with man's (unperspectival) separation from nature. Witness the story of the Fall in Genesis (and its admonition to go forth and dominate nature); and the myth of Prometheus and the giving of fire to man. These both indicate a strong awareness of man's differentness from nature. Man is coming into his own, although he is anything but independent of it. One could characterize this as a two-dimensional understanding of the world. Within the circle of believers is where the important acts of life take place. The mere forces of nature have a beingness, often anthropomorphized, but a beingness nevertheless. Myth, then, or the mythologeme is the primary form of expression of this period. Subsets of this basic form would be the gods, symbols and mysteries. These figures provide the emerging consciousness with imaginative images around which to center man's knowledge and understanding of the world. If the Magic structure of consciousness is the emotional aspect, then the Mythical structure is the imaginative one. It is this fact that makes mythology so difficult for us as moderns to deal with. The plethora of images (gods) and the seeming inconsistent pantheons of deities brings the rational mind quickly to confusion. Who can keep track of all these figures, their meanings, their correspondences and their associations. This is the time of the dream.

Up until this time, that is in the magical structure of consciousness, souls and afterlives were not of great importance (at least we do not find a lot of evidence thereof). Yet in the fully developed mythical consciousness, this is important. The entire civilization of Egypt, as we know it, revolved around this very issue. When we are told, then, in certain rosicrucian documents that we must descend into Egypt, we are being told that we must regain, not revert to, our mythical heritage.

Mouths begin to play a more important role. Not only is the shaman and wise person of the tribe a repository of wisdom, others, the poets, such as Homer, begin to play a more important role in the culture. This does not really begin to happen until the mythical structure of consciousness, however. The "I" of man is not yet fully developed, to be sure, but it has developed to that point that it recognizes and demands a separation from nature, from its environment. We can take this as evidence of an increasing crystallization of the ego. We are on the way to selfhood.

Of course, mythology is very much alive today. This explains the popularity of Joseph Campbell and his work on myth. It explains the appeal that Robert Bly and his "Gathering of Men" workshops have. What both Campbell and Bly do is tell stories: imaginative, intuitively understood stories that reveal to us things that our current rational mode of thinking prohibits us from knowing. We have much to learn from myth, however, and should be ever aware of its influences.

The Mental structure of consciousness

The next shift in consciousness took place between 10,000 B.C. and 500 B.C. This was the transition to the Mental structure of consciousness. It was at this time that man, to use Gebser's image, stepped out of the mythical circle (two-dimensional) into three- dimensional space. Mythology had become so deficient (and it should be noted that each structure has its "efficient" as well as "deficient" form), that man needed a clean break with the past. The plethora of gods and contradictory stories of creation, formation of institutions, and so on threatened to overwhelm the consciousness of man; he practi- cally stood on the verge of drowning in a deluge of mythological mentation. In reaction to this, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and of course, Pythagoras stepped forth to counteract this trend. The mental structure was inaugurated and this coincides with the "discovery" of "causality," Abstraction becomes a key word to describe mental activity and we find man using his mind to overcome and "master" the world around him. With abstraction comes philosophizing, hence the philosopheme is the primary form of expression. Monotheism almost universally replaces the plethora of gods of bygone days; dogma, in both allegory and creed, replaces the symbols of previous times; method replaces the mysteries as man develops an ever-increasing desire to penetrate, and, of course, master nature. This has given rise to the idea of science as the dominant religion of today. Also at this time, time itself was conceptualized (spatialized) as an "arrow" that points from the past to the future by way of the present.[14]

About the time of the Renaissance, man came into his own and really mastered space. It was at this time that perspective was actually introduced into art. Since that time, perspective has come to be a major part and aspect of our mental functioning. Perspective is the life blood of reasoning and the Rational structure of consciousness, which Gebser considers to be only a deficient form of the Mental structure. What we have is the full development of the ego and its related centeredness. We conceive things, events and phenomena in terms of our own perspectives, often at the expense of others. The eye, it will be seen (and the last of the openings in the head), becomes the spiritual organ representative of this structure. Our language, our entire imagery and dominant metaphor takes on visual, spatial character. Space is finally overcome, in the true sense of the word. With the supercession of space, man finally accomplishes his egoistic, individual separation from nature. In this concretization of the "I," we become very aware of our existence, of our beingness, of our individuality. And so it should be. But in a deficient mode, the outcomes, of course, are loneliness, isolation, and alienation, which are so characteristic of our own American culture. In fact, our current materialistic approach to understanding reality is perhaps the final stage of this structure. There is also much everyday evidence to indicate that we are moving through a great change at this time.

We should remember, however, that this is also the time of philosophy. The mental ordering and systematization of thought becomes the real dominant mode of expression. The myths have lost their vibrancy and existential connection to reality. Greek thought followed later by the Scholastics and finally the Enlightenment are all periods in which this particular structure of consciousness flourishes and strongly manifests. It is not without its opposition, of course, since any change will bring about the requisite opposition to its own development. By the time of the Renaissance, though, this structure had firmly established itself and was prepared to move into the next phase of its development. At this time, as was pointed out earlier, a very profound and significant event occurred: man incorporated space into his thought. We cannot underestimate, or overstate, the importance of this development. It is literally at this time that the world begins to shrink. The seeds of our one world community are planted at this time. The ripples begun during the magical structure are widening significantly: first spirit, then soul, now space have become constituents of man's consciousness. Three dimensions have been established and we are prepared for the next significant step we are taking now.

The Integral Structure of Consciousness

As can be guessed, then, Gebser feels that we are on the threshold of a new structure of consciousness, namely the Integral. For Gebser, this structure integrates those which have come before and enable the human mind to transcend the limitations of three- dimensionality. A fourth dimension, time, if you will, is added. This integration is not simply a union of seemingly disparate opposites, rather it is the "irruption of qualitative time into our consciousness."[15] The supercession of time is a theme that will play an extremely important role in this structure. In fact, the ideas of arationality (as opposed to the rationality of the current structure), aperspectivity (as opposed to the perspective, spatially determined mentation of the current structure), and diaphaneity (the transparent recognition of the whole, not just parts) are significant characteristics of this new structure. Stated differently, the tensions and relations between things are more important, at times, than the things themselves; how the relationships develop over time takes precedence to the mere fact that a relationship exists. It will be this structure of consciousness that will enable us to overcome the dualism of the mental structure and actually participate in the transparency of self and life. This fourth structure toward which we are moving is one of minimum latency and maximum transparency; diaphaneity is one of its hallmarks. Transparency is not a "not seeing" as one does not see the pane of glass though which one looks out a window, rather one sees through things and perceives their true nature. Statements about truth are superseded by statements as truth. Verition not description is what we experience and know. Philosophy is replaced by eteology; that is, the eteon, or being-in-truth.[16]

This structure is difficult to describe since it depends to a great deal on experience, not just that we have them, but on how intense they are and what we glean from them for now and the future. Intensity is a key characteristic of this mode of consciousness. By intensity, I do not mean simply an emotional relationship to experience or the feeling or deepening of emotion itself. This would be a magical response not an integral one. Perhaps it would be best to review a few examples of what is meant by fourth dimensionality, arationality and aperspectivity.

Let us start with intensity and use the analogy of love. Love is the energy (yet it has only recently been referred to as such) or the driving force behind true spirituality and spiritual growth. We learn early as mystics and students of the other arts, that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This is, in fact, one of the two great commandments given us by the Christ and the theme of Love is one that was very strongly developed by the great apostle, Saint Paul, as well. However, it is easy to love those who are our neighbors (even though at times they are exasperating) because they are so much like us. We recognize ourselves in them and so we love them. The affinity of interests, locale, or any other of myriad possibilities makes loving those who are like us a joy. We fulfill our spirituality by adhering to this commandment; it is a yoke that we gladly bear. Nevertheless, this love is a three-dimensional love at best. We love those who fit neatly into our perspectives of being and life. We choose who they are and when and how often we extend that love to them. An integral love, a fourth dimensional love, though, would go beyond that. The Christ also informed us of what that love is when he admonished us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is this love that is intense for it is required without asking our opinion (our point of view, our perspective) of it. This is the love of Judas. This is a demanding love that not many are willing to offer.
This article by Alan Combs offers an overview of the work of Gebser: Inner and Outer Realities: Jean Gebser in a Cultural/Historical Perspective. Combs places Gebser's work within a long line of philosophers and psychologists, which is helpful in contextualizing his work.

Finally, one would benefit in comparing Gebser's work to Spiral Dynamics model of Don Beck and Chris Cowan - this introduction explains the processes at work beneath Gebser's stages, how they evolve and why.

Pop Matters - The Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008

Nice list. I'm going to need to get some of these.
Steve Wynn (photo by Guy Kokken)

The Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2008

[10 December 2008]

by Michael Keefe

cover art
1. Steve Wynn
Crossing Dragon Bridge
(Rock Ridge; US: 9 Sep 2008; UK: 28 Apr 2008)

Steve Wynn’s Crossing Dragon Bridge is an unusually acoustic-leaning and sophisticated sounding release for him. Though he’s clearly a talented songcrafter, Wynn tends to funnel his strongest works through a rock setting. Since disbanding his excellent 1980s group, the Dream Syndicate, his more rockin’ efforts (with the Miracle 3) have tended to be his best. Here, however, he channels Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, and other great singer-songwriters who have a flair for incorporating European melodies into their tunes and string arrangements into their recordings. Wynn traveled to Slovenia to make Crossing Dragon Bridge and performed the majority of it himself. Album bookends “Slovenian Rhapsody I” and “II” capture his locale, while standout tracks like “Love Me Anyway” and “Wait Until You Get to Know Me” employ a spare groove, allowing Wynn’s dark and self-deprecating wit to shine. The lovely “Manhattan Fault Line”, meanwhile, uses a more traditional singer-songwriter structure, accented by graceful strings. As strongly assured as Crossing Dragon Bridge is, you’d think Wynn had been recording albums like this all along.

cover art

2. Martha Wainwright
I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too
(Zoe/Rounder; US: 10 Jun 2008; UK: 12 May 2008)

On her superbly titled sophomore release, Martha Wainwright (yes, daughter of Loudon and sister of Rufus) shrugs free of the conventions of her 2005 eponymous debut. It’s not that she was overly hemmed in before. That first album is a beauty, and her soaringly pretty-yet-creaky voice gave it great character. On her latest, though, she ventures further outside. Her singing here lays waste to standard notions of placement and rhythm, as her words take flight and touch down in marvelous and unexpected ways. Likewise, Wainwright loosens up the music on I Know You’re Married. From her picking patterns to the string sounds, the arrangements feel organic and open. Wainwright’s lyrics are devastatingly good, as well. She picks at her foolish heart until it’s raw and then describes the mess with candor, humor, and sharp imagery. On top of it all, she turns in excellent covers of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and early Eurythmics, and works them in seamlessly with her excellent batch of original tunes.

cover art

3. Lindsey Buckingham
Gift of Screws
(Reprise; US: 16 Sep 2008; UK: 15 Sep 2008)

In Ron Hart’s review, he wrote that Lindsey Buckingham’s Gift of Screws sounds like “Fleetwood Mac without the chicks”, explaining that bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood join Buckingham on three of the album’s tracks. “The best of these,” wrote Hart, “is the album’s title cut, a propulsive rocker in the vein of the more kinetic moments of Fleetwood Mac’s 1972 masterpiece Bare Trees and the bluesy ‘Wait for Me’, both of which exhibit the musical synergy of McVie, Buckingham, and Fleetwood better than anything they have ever recorded together. Elsewhere, tracks like ‘The Right Place to Fade’ and ‘Did You Miss Me?’ will remind fans of material from Fleetwood Mac’s surprise 2003 comeback album Say You Will. Other songs here will remind you of Buckingham’s previous solo effort, 2006’s magnificent Under the Skin.” He revives the intricate guitar picking of that album on Gift of Screws tracks like “Time Precious Time” and “Bel Air Rain”. Hart concludes: “There might not be a more poignant protest anthem in these times of bogus bailouts than ‘Treason’, a shimmering acoustic lament that stands out as one of the finest moments of Buckingham’s already-storied career.”

See the whole list.

PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Simon Baron-Cohen - The Biology of the Imagination

A geeky cool article from an excellent website with no RSS feed - I hate that. Who doesn't use an RSS feed these days?

Anyway, the article - The Biology of the Imagination - argues that although imagination is mostly a cultural activity, the ability to imagine is distinctly biological, referencing Asperger's and autism to demonstrate what happens when that biological "module" is not present or developed.

The Biology of the Imagination

by Simon Baron-Cohen

In what sense might something as intrinsically human as the imagination be biological? How could the products of the imagination – a novel, a painting, a sonata, a theory – be thought of as the result of biological matter? After all, such artefacts are what culture is made of. So why invoke biology? In this essay, I will argue that the content of the imagination is of course determined more by culture than biology. But the capacity to imagine owes more to biology than culture.

Let’s start with a few definitional issues. What do we mean by ‘imagination’? I do not mean mere imagery, though clearly the imagination may depend on the manipulation of imagery. Imagery is usually the product of one of the five senses (though it can also be generated without any sensory input at all, from the mere act of thinking or dreaming). Imagery typically comprises a mental representation of a state of affairs in the outside, physical world. I don’t want to put you off from reading this essay by littering it with jargon, so let’s just think of a mental representation as a picture in your head. That is what we are going to be calling an image, but that is not the same as imagination. Consider why not.

When we create a visual image of a specific object in our mind, the image as a picture of the object has a more or less truthful relationship to that object or outside state of affairs. If the image is a good, faithful, representation, it depicts the object or state of affairs accurately in all its detail. So, mental images typically have ‘truth relationships’ to the outside world. Of course, to create imagery in the first place depends on having the relevant ‘hardware’. To create a photo, one needs a camera. To create a mental image, one needs a sense organ hooked up to a brain. An eye can do the trick, since the retina contains receptors that can code both position and colour in sufficient detail for the brain to which it is hooked up to create an accurate image. But in the absence of an eye, clearly an ear or a finger can do the trick too. With your ear, you can create an image of where that owl might be. With your finger, you can create an image of where your car-keys are.

Imagery may be necessary for human imagination. It has been suggested that all the products of the imagination are derived from imagery, following some transformation of the basic imagery. For example, Rutgers’ psychologist Alan Leslie, when he worked in London in the 1980s, proposed that imagination essentially involves three steps: Take what he called a ‘primary’ representation (which, as we have already established, is an image that has truth relations to the outside world). Then make a copy of this primary representation (Leslie calls this copy a ‘second-order’ representation). Finally, one can then introduce some change to this second-order representation, playing with its truth relationships to the outside world without jeopardising the important truth relationships that the original, primary representation needs to preserve. For Leslie, when you use your imagination, you leave your primary representation untouched (for important evolutionary reasons that we will come onto), but once you have a photocopy of this (as it were), you can do pretty much anything you like with it.

Let’s make this more concrete. Your eye looks at a fish. This causes your brain to form a visual image of a fish. So far, your primary representation ‘fish’ still has accurate truth relations with the outside world. The real fish has fins, eyes and gills, and so does your image of the fish. Or your eye looks at a woman, and this causes your brain to form a visual image of the woman. Now you not only have a primary representation of a fish, but you also have a primary representation of a woman. This image, like the one of the fish, is also truthful. The woman you looked at has long hair and an alluring smile, and so does your primary representation of the woman.

Read the whole article.

After an in-depth explanation of the philosophy of mind and its ability to construct representations of reality, this is the main point:
So, what has all this got to do with the original question of whether the capacity for human imagination is, at its core, biological? For Leslie, the capacity for meta-representation involves a special module in the brain, which humans have and that possibly no other species possesses. In the vast majority of the population, this module functions well. It can be seen in the normal infant at 14 months old who can introduce pretence into their play; seen in the normal 4 year old child who can employ mind-reading in their relationships and thus appreciate different points of view; or seen in the adult novelist who can imagine all sorts of scenarios that exist nowhere except in her own imagination, and in the imagination of her reader.

But sometimes this module can fail to develop in the normal way. A child might be delayed in developing this special piece of hardware: meta-representation. The consequence would be that they find it hard to mind-read others. This appears to be the case in children with Asperger Syndrome. They have degrees of difficulty with mind-reading.

Or they may never develop meta-representation, such that they are effectively ‘mind-blind’. This appears to be the case in children with severe or extreme (classic) autism. Given that classic autism and Asperger Syndrome are both sub-groups on what is today recognized as the ‘autistic spectrum’, and that this spectrum appears to be caused by genetic factors affecting brain development, the inference from this is that the capacity for meta-representation itself may depend on genes that can build the relevant brain structures, that allow us to imagine other people’s worlds.

What are the consequences for people on the autistic spectrum, and for our understanding of the role of biology in human imagination? Children with severe or classic autism may end up with an exclusive interest in the real world, with no interest at all either in mind-reading, pretending, or fiction. They may enjoy making patterns with real objects, or watching how real objects behave, but not even spare a thought for how someone else might be feeling or what they might be thinking, or understand why a mermaid or a unicorn is a fun idea. Children with Asperger Syndrome may manage to mind-read to some extent, after a delay in developing this skill. But their delay may mean they still find empathy challenging even in adulthood. They may show a preference for factual reading material over fiction, or for documentaries over fictional films, perhaps because the hardware in their brain that functions to form primary representations and understand the real world of physical objects is more highly developed than the meta-representational hardware in their brain that functions to represent possible states of mind.
Cool article.

Ex-Finland Leader Accepts Nobel Peace Prize

From CNN, this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, gave his acceptance speech and called on Barack Obama to solve the conflicts in the Middle East.
Ex-Finland Leader Accepts Nobel Peace Prize

(CNN) -- Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari Wednesday called on U.S. President-elect Barack Obama to "give high priority to the Middle East conflict in his first year in office."

Martti Ahtisaari (left) with King Harald of Norway before the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony
Martti Ahtisaari (left) with King Harald of Norway
before the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony

"All crises, including the one in the Middle East, can be solved," the former Finnish president said in his Nobel acceptance speech. The international community also had to put its weight behind the project, he added, saying its credibility was at stake.

"Peace is a question of will," he said as he received the prize for his efforts to resolve conflicts from Kosovo to Indonesia and Namibia.

"Wars and conflicts are not inevitable," he said, arguing that they are caused by people who have something to gain from them. "All conflicts can be settled."

Ahtisaari was modest about the role of mediators in ending conflicts, saying only the parties themselves could end bloodshed.

He said his own experience as a child, when his hometown in Finland became part of the Soviet Union under a "spheres-of-influence" agreement between German leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, had influenced his determination to work towards peace.

"We became refugees in our own country," he said of the events that took place when he was two years old.

Ole Danbolt Mjos, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, praised Ahtisaari for brokering an end to the long conflict between Indonesia and separatists in Aceh, leading to extensive autonomy for the region.

Ahtisaari and his organization Crisis Management Initiative "saw opportunities where others only saw conflict," Mjos said.

And he praised the Finn's work in pressing Slobodan Milosevic to end the war in Kosovo in 1999. Ahtisaari put forward an autonomy plan for Kosovo in 2007 which Serbia refused to accept, but Mjos said the province's subsequent declaration of independence came close to mirroring the Ahtisaari plan.

"Ahtisaari's solution for Kosovo has to a large extent been put into practice. Kosovo has become independent. The conflict had no other solution," Mjos said, admitting that in some conflicts, "the parties are too far apart."

He also cited Ahtisaari's 14 years of work in Namibia, starting as United Nations Commissioner there and culminating in the country's independence in 1990.

Read the whole article.