Kinkazzo Burning
~ reflections & disquisitions
It takes both sunshine and rain to make a rainbow...

~ Pieces of God, by jollybeggar

Sent by my dear Canadian friend jb --- still a believer!

Below two songs, two poems, two invocations...

    i rose above these sterile sheets
    a cold sweat left behind
    a departure from a living death
    delivered just in time
    the plot had thickened to the point
    where there was little hope to see
    the antagonist had raised his fist
    no option was open to me

    but for a deus ex machina
    a god in the machine
    an unexpected reversal comes about
    like awakening from a bad dream
    with the swing of the playwright's pen
    life returns to me again
    now the show can have a happy ending
    by faith, for freedom's haste, the seasons change

    it's never too late to whirl around
    move the other way
    i have seen mornings robbed of light
    nights as bright as day
    the future is changeable- the past is set
    finally i understand
    hardest to grasp is that circumstance
    is successfully countermand

    by deus ex machina
    God in the machine
    an unexpected reversal comes about
    like awakening from a bad dream
    with the swing of the playwright's pen
    life returns to me again
    now the show can have a happy ending
    by faith, for freedom's haste, the seasons change

    by faith, for freedom's haste, the seasons change

(March 2, 2007)

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

i wrote another song (first one in probably a year and a half) and i thought it might be a meaningful addition to the ever-expanding God page. i was reading augustine's 'confessions' and was halted, in the 'book of memory' chapter, by the phrase:


what followed was one of those mystical, handel's messiah kind of moments of connection and synthesis, scripture and literature, poetry and prose, words and music- like the blues singer who sings snippets of every delta song he's ever heard with such conviction and power that no one cries 'plageurist'- they are too busy celebrating the magic that someone jokingly quipped should be called 'zeppelin' because it would go over like a lead balloon...
whatever. here's the song.
somebody said the arrangement reminded them of the floyd.
always a compliment! ha ha

what do i love when i love you?
what is the object of my affection?
God? what is my God?

who do i love when i love you?
who is my hope and my salvation?
Lord? who is my Lord?

you shine into my soul where space cannot contain you
you speak with the sound that does not fade with passing time
the fragrance of your presence remains with me in essence
the sweetness of your name does not grow stale

what do i preach when i preach you?
what is my message of exhortation?
Word? what is my Word?

where do i go when i seek you?
where do i search for your revelation?
God? where is my God?

(January 2008)

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Do you MIND?

Mind, mind upon the blog, What's the mindless mind of all?

What is a mind? How is it related to a body?
Descartes answer was substance dualism. A person consists of an immaterial substance (mind/soul) attached to a material substance (a body). But this thesis fails a crucial test. An immaterial substance cannot move a body; therefore a mind cannot move a body. I shall assume that to have a mind one must first have a brain. This is a materialist perspective. Some weaknesses in this perspective will be described. I shall argue that minds do not necessarily exist as entities, that we nevertheless are aware of our own mental events and that we are aware that other people have similar events.

The mind cannot exist like a body or a collection of cells in a body. If it did somebody would have found it or at least given a rough description of its location. Also, things do not exist just because we can name them. We speak of unicorns but this does not make them exist. Just because we refer to something as a mind does not make it exist. Nevertheless, we are each aware of internal experiences in the most intimate way. Doubts and fears, the blue sky, the scent of flowers, all have an immediacy that is undeniable.

Merging images: the first is the stellar death of planetary nebula NGC 7027 taken by Hubble - The image of the brain is by the Virtual Human Initiative

Now if mental events and brain events (i.e., physical events) are one and the same thing, then research into the mental events would be reduced to research into the brain. Even if mental events are taken to be properties of brain events then ultimately we are forced back to look to the physical for the explanation of the mental. This will get us nowhere for two reasons.

Firstly, a close inspection of a brain is doomed to be carried out at the third person perspective. If I could look at the bits of my own brain involved in any mental act I would register the firings taking place and say,”Ah that’s the redness of red!” I would still be unable to convey to anyone else the exact nature of this experience – how it feels for me. Secondly, if someone else were plugged in to my brain so that they registered all I saw and thought, then they would register all the mental acts as theirs. They would say, ‘That sky was blue.’ If pressed about the feeling of blueness as compared to their own feelings they would be forced to admit that this was their own feeling of blue.

Suppose two people were connected by an apparatus which allowed one person (A) to monitor the other’s (B’s) mental events – thoughts, feelings, sensory experiences and so on. Further suppose that the apparatus is graduated so that A can gradually increase the input of B’s thinking and experience into her own brain. Assuming that A was in a resting quietly in a cocoon, at what point does A become fully aware of the distinctive feel of B’s mental events? The question misses the point because A’s experiences can only ever be her own and no one else’s.

Let us imagine that by some advances in miniaturisation and virtual reality techniques we take a tour of someone’s brain. The guide points out a series of neurone firings, which we see as a pattern of lights in a network: he tells us that the subject is seeing some blue sky. “Fine,” we say, “ but where’s the blue?” We might also have asked, “Where is the person? The individual?” Our poor guide would be just as baffled. “Blue is that set of flashing lights,” he says.

Of course, we are inside the individual but where are the mental events? We still cannot get the subjective view. At last we realise that no physical explanation of this type can give access to the subjective perspective. It cannot be revealed by this sort of examination. A close inspection of a set of neurone firings will not give us the redness of red. Materialist approaches will reveal a lot about the brain. They will not reveal much about mental events or even about a repository of such events which could be called a mind.

One logical problem with materialism is causation. While it easy to imagine a physical event causing a mental event a (finger caught in a door elicits a pain experience). It is difficult to imagine a mental event causing a physical event. The method used is to say that events take place in a specific context. For example, I am enjoying a meal and I experience the desire for a glass of wine. The thought causes me to raise my arm to reach for the bottle. Of course, the sight of the wine could have caused the reaching out of the arm. In this case, it could be seen as an example of physical causation. The mental event could have been traced back to a physical event. In principle, it might well be possible to trace every event of whatever type back through a physical causal chain. This chain would include all those unforseen events in the physical environment. This view might be a little deterministic for some palates.

Physically what I am doing can, even if only in principle, be mapped out. The order of firings in the eye and brain can be described but the element of subjectivity; the essence of the way the wine tastes to me still eludes capture. I do not think that my taste of wine is to be appreciated by anyone else.

I taste the wine. I experience the world from my perspective, my subjective perspective. I experience the inner dimensions of pain, love and the football results. I converse with other people who seem to live similar lives. They seem to experience similar emotions. What is more, I am able to communicate hopes, fears, and phenomenal experiences with a fair degree of understanding on either side. One way forward might therefore be to look not for a mind but for an alternative way of describing mental events. Human beings are able to communicate to each other about the physical world and their own mental states with relative ease. They act in ways which seem to involve mental acts – thoughts. Dispositions to act in certain ways give a different perspective on the nature of the mental.

Brain sections

Gilbert Ryle said that mental acts are manifestations of dispositions to act in certain ways. Human beings possess dispositional properties. Actions that contain a mental component are not, according to Ryle, some physical manifestation of acts going on in a private mental theatre. They are what he calls actualisations of dispositions.

Ryle gives two simple examples of dispositions. Glass is brittle; when dropped it will shatter. The disposition becomes actualised when the glass is dropped on to the floor. Similarly, an habitual smoker has a ‘permanent proneness’ under certain conditions to smoke. The smoker lights up after a meal. The disposition has been actualised in a particular set of circumstances.

Different behaviours could obtain in the same set of circumstances. If it is cold outside I may turn up the heat, or put on a coat; I may think about my Christmas present list. Vast numbers of possibilities present themselves. In addition, a single mental state can be caused in different ways. I put my coat on if it is cold or if it is easier than carrying it or if I feel that it is a formal occasion. The dispositional approach is flexible. The description of mental events as actualisations of dispositions to act (or not act) has considerable force. It is flexible in that one disposition can be realised in a variety of circumstances. A disposition is not tied to one particular set of environmental states and brain states. It is however tied to behaviour as evidence of mental activity.

There is a serious problem with dispositions. My felt anger in a particular situation is an actualisation of my disposition to feel anger. This seems to be a dangerously circular way of defining anger (a mental state). What is the mental state of anger? Easy, it is an actualisation of my disposition to feel anger. What is this disposition? It is a feeling of anger actualised under certain circumstances. What are the circumstances? Well I could give you a massive list but in general they are ones in which I feel anger. We have not come very far here.

The dispositional model is useful as an explanation of behaviour. It could provide a useful signpost for cognitive neuroscientists in their research. A single disposition can be actualised in different ways. This gives a far more flexible platform for research than programmes which equate brain states in one way or another with mental states. However, in the process of reducing statements about the mind to statements about behaviour, or potential behaviour, something has been lost. The quality of the experience is missing. The painfulness of pain is not to be found in dispositions. But this need not cause alarm because the painfulness of pain is to be found in us. This is an assumption based on observed behaviour. I am certain of this felt quality of pain but what is my warrant for asserting this quality in others? I am certain of the felt quality of my phenomenal experiences but what about others?

One way forward here would be to argue that because of my experiences I know that I have mental events. People I know seem to be much like me. We converse on a range of subjects which include references to thinking, doubts, emotions and the like, therefore, by analogy, I assume that they have minds. I have an experience of happiness. I know this because I am directly in touch with it. Other people seem much like me. Therefore, they must have experiences much like me. This is a very weak argument because, logically, the others could be zombies. However, we use language, a publicly observable behaviour, to converse about the whole range of our experiences. To play the game of language we must have internalised a vocabulary and a complex set of rules.

Language is publicly observable behaviour that we use to communicate our phenomenal states, intentional states and moods. We are able to do this because we have learned to play language games. We can fill in gaps and take cues from contexts more or less perfectly. We know when ‘slab’ means a piece of cake or a piece of rock. However, language is public. It is not possible, according to Wittgenstein, to have a private or internal language. If this claim is true then it strikes at the whole notion of internal experience of the type that we habitually take for granted.

Wittgenstein uses the ‘beetle in a box' argument.

Wittgenstein's beetle?

If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word ’pain’ means – must I not say the same of other people too?…..suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a ‘beetle’. No one could look at anyone else’s box, and everyone knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle…….but suppose the word ‘beetle’ had a use in these people’s language? If so it would not be used as the name of a thing…. That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation’ then the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.

There are two important points here. First, there is the question of how terms are given meaning. Clearly in the case of the pain sensations the pain is not to be defined as a private internally considered object. Secondly, the meaning of pain is defined by its public use. Since meanings are shared by groups of language users then all aspects of the mind that can be discussed are public and not private.

This argument stresses the close links between mental acts and behaviour – language is a form of behaviour. It also depends upon the link established between Wittgenstein’s metaphysic of meaning as use. He seems to be getting back here to an important point he made in The Tractatus that the meaning of many terms can only be shown and not said. There is a mistake then in treating propositions about sensations of pain, love and the like as propositions about ghostly internal entities. What gives meaning to such terms is the immediate context in which they take place. We get the message or not from the word and deed as they take place. When someone says,’Ouch!’ and flinches the meaning is shown more than said.

I listen to a play on the radio or a commentary on an event. I can follow a rugby match. The commentator and I have a good deal of common ground so that I can get something, but not all, of his feeling for the game. I get a picture of the game and can share some of his emotions. We must have something in common here in terms of language, knowledge and feelings. Our mutual understanding is not perfect but our mutual participation in the commentary demonstrates the fact that we have similar knowledge and understanding. More than this we have similar mental events. If we were to group these under the heading of the word ‘mind’, then we would both be seen to have minds.

One always arrives back to the fact of living here and now and that ‘this world is my world’. My experience tells me that I have mental events. They seem to be located internally. I usually call all these events my mind. Arguments, however, tell me that I cannot have a private internal language. Although these arguments are logically strong, I do not find them convincing. I am certain that I have a private version of this public language that enables me to take part in day-to-day affairs with a degree of efficiency.

Languages change over time. The meanings of words change over the years. Although we are all capable of following the rules of our languages we do not all share exactly the same meanings. If we did then languages would not change at all. Therefore, despite the public nature of the language, my use of it shows me that I indeed have private associations and feelings which I do not share. There are also things which I do not know. But my dealings with others show me that they experience mental events. Commonly these events are often said to take place’ in the mind’. What we refer to as minds seems to name a set of processes or mental events.

Subjective experience is just that – subjective. The feelings that go with it are personal. They can be expressed in public language in the full knowledge that my beetle may be a dung beetle and yours a stag beetle. The third person perspective may eventually reveal all there is to know about the workings of the brain and it may well unearth aspects of consciousness. No such research can reveal the personal quality of subjective experience or the exact location of a mind.

  1. METZINGER, T. (ed.) (1995) Conscious Experience, Paderborn, Ferdinand Schonigh.

  2. RYLE, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind London, Penguin (Peregrine) Books.

  3. WITTGENSTEIN, L. (Trans ANSCOMBE, G. E.M.) (1958), Philosophical Investigations, London, Blackwell.

  4. WITTGENSTEIN, L (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, London , RKP


Dennett's the man

...well, now check out Daniel Dennett's website and related entries, including the Edge.

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Best Author's Acknowledgement Page Ever Written

Wild Fire UK cover
I love the way Nelson DeMille writes, especially his trilogy with John Corey as the main character.

On reading his very latest, WILD FIRE, I came across this beaut cameo of an acknowledgement, which has to be the best ever written to make fun of "name dropping" authors. Here 'tis -- enjoy:

...There is a new trend among authors to thank every famous people for inspiration, non-existent assistance, and/or some casual reference to the author’s work. Authors do this to pump themselves up. So, on the off chance that this is helpful, I wish to thank the following people: the Emperor of Japan and the Queen of England for promoting literacy; William S. Cohen, former secretary of defense, for dropping me a note saying he liked my books, as did his boss, Bill Clinton; Bruce Willis, who called me one day and said, "Hey, you’re a good writer"; Albert Einstein, who inspired me to write about nuclear weapons; General George Armstrong Custer, whose brashness at the Little Bighorn taught me a lesson on judgement; Mikhail Gorbachev, whose courageous actions indirectly led to my books being translated into Russian; Don DeLillo and Joan Didion, whose books are always before and after mine on bookshelves, and whose names always appear before and after mine in almanacs and many lists of American writers -- thanks for being there, guys; Julius Caesar [oh, man, this is a good one!], for showing the world that illiterate barbarians can be beaten; Paris Hilton, whose family hotel chain carries my books in their gift shops; and last but not least, Albert II, King of the Belgians, who once waved to me in Brussels as the Royal Procession moved from the Palace to the Parliament Building, screwing up traffic for half an hour, thereby forcing me to kill time by thinking of a great plot to dethrone the King of the Belgians.

There are many more people I could thank, but time, space, and modesty compel me to stop here.

And here's an article from written by Tom Miller (February 13, 2006), whose opinion on the author I very much share and well appraises DeMille's work generally:

Nelson DeMille's Vietnam

Nelson DeMille needs no introduction to anyone who's ever had a few hours to kill while traveling. The author of twelve—and counting—best-selling novels of suspense, DeMille's books have accumulated more frequent flier miles than anyone not named Clancy. His reign as king of the airport kiosk even managed to survive his latest thriller Night Fall, a fictional account the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 in the waters off Long Island. Now, that's staying power.

But, long before DeMille's most common prefix was "NY Times best-selling author," he was called Lt. DeMille and led an infantry platoon of the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam. He has drawn on his wartime experience to pen two Vietnam novels—1985's Word of Honor and 2002's Up Country. Both showcase DeMille's talent as a storyteller. But, more than that, they represent an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the war—an attempt that will resonate with many of DeMille's fellow veterans.

DeMille's books are meant to be read and enjoyed, not endlessly parsed over cappuccinos in the faculty lounge. They are conventionally plotted (beginning, middle, end), clearly written, politically incorrect, and don't confuse irony for sophistication.In other words, anathema for our academic elites.

The book critics, who have to answer to editors and publishers instead of hiding behind tenure, can't ignore someone who sells as many books as DeMille, but they can dismiss him with faint praise. So they note his faculty for storytelling: "[an] incredibly versatile storyteller"; "An intelligent and accomplished storyteller"; "[a] muscular storyteller. "What they don't say is that "storyteller" is often code for popular and popular means lowbrow to these pseudo-snobs. If it's not dense with metaphor and wrapped in irony, it's not literature. You know: art.

What these well-schooled but poorly educated folk forget is that storytelling is at the heart of all great literature. Starting with Homer. Anyone who's read his Iliad and Odyssey will agree that he's a versatile, intelligent, accomplished, and muscular storyteller. He also had quite a popular following.

Now, while DeMille is good, he's no Homer. We're just trying to make a point. DeMille is closer to Hemingway, whom he identifies as an early influence on his writing. The influence is most visible in DeMille's concise sentences and muscular language. He also admits to an affinity for Graham Greene, which is evident in his exotic settings and his thematic search for moral equilibrium.(Greene wrote what remains the best novel on collision between Vietnam and the West, The Quiet American.)

The major thrust of Word of Honor and Up Country is three-fold: what the war did to us (especially the warriors on both sides but also the larger societies, its long reach, and the possibility of finally exorcising its ghosts. That the books, published seventeen years apart — Word of Honor in 1985, Up Country in 2002 — turn on the same themes is proof of the war's long reach and persistent ghosts.

In Word of Honor, a former infantry officer in Vietnam is called to account for a long-hidden massacre that occurred on his watch.Almost two decades removed from Vietnam, Ben Tyson is a successful executive and pillar of the community. When a writer researching a book on the Tet Offensive pins the massacre of over 100 civilians at a hospital outside Hue on Tyson's platoon, his life slowly collapses around him. Facing a public relations nightmare, the Army quickly charges Tyson with murder and hauls him before a court-martial.

Like the non-fictional Lt. William Calley of My Lai infamy, the fictional Lt. Ben Tyson alone will stand accused for the sins of Vietnam. As Tyson wryly and bitterly reflects, "57,939 sacrifices weren't enough."DeMille is clearly unhappy that neither the military brass nor the government has ever taken ownership of the war and that the onus, then and now, always falls on the troops.

Tyson's trial is intended to be cathartic, and it is... to a degree. But, despite the courtroom exorcism, the ghosts linger.

Perhaps that's what led DeMille back to Vietnam in 1997. Ostensibly, he returned to research the novel that became Up Country, but the ghosts clearly were calling. You can hear them throughout Up Country. And, despite the assurances of his main character Paul Brenner — DeMille's alter ego as a First Cavalry Division infantryman before, during, and after the Tet Offensive—it's not at all clear that's he's made his peace with the war.

DeMille brings Army homicide cop Brenner, the hero of The General's Daughter, out of retirement to investigate the alleged murder of an American officer during the Tet Offensive. Not only did the crime take place thirty years earlier, but the only evidence of it is a letter taken off the body of a North Vietnamese soldier by an American G.I. The purloined letter, written by the dead soldier's brother, indicates that he observed one American officer murder another.

The Army wants Brenner to return to Vietnam in an unofficial capacity—posing as a tourist—and find out if the letter writer survived the war. Despite his misgivings, Brenner allows himself to be talked into going.The rest is part travelogue, part flashback to the war, and part thriller.

Brenner is detained at the Saigon airport, shadowed and harassed by a skeptical Col. Mang of the Security Police, and seduced by his contact, Susan Weber, an ex-pat investment banker with a secret. His journey takes him from Saigon north to Nha Trang, Hue, Dien Bien Phu, and Hanoi. Along the way, DeMille offers a detailed snapshot of contemporary Vietnam. Much has changed since the war, but much remains the same. A new battle — for the future — is raging between market reformers and a statist rearguard, and the outcome is still uncertain.

Brenner also visits his old battlefields — Quang Tri Province, the A Shau Valley, and Khe Sanh — and faces his personal ghosts. Brenner (DeMille) insists that he's finally put the past to rest with this trip, but we remain unconvinced. DeMille leaves too much evidence to the contrary. "Like most soldiers," Brenner muses at one point, "he didn't understand how the politicians could give away what had been bought in blood. "On another occasion, Brenner tells his interpreter, "'Tell him... America still remembers its South Vietnamese allies,' which was total bullshit, but sounded good. "Still sounds conflicted to me.

Maybe it's still too soon. Maybe, in fact, Vietnam will haunt us until the last of the Baby Boomers pass on. Maybe only then can the last chapter on the war be written.


The Wit and Wisdom of Nelson DeMille

  1. 1."Any fool, including an ROTC lieutenant can be a military genius at the breakfast table twenty years later."

  2. 2."Hope is nothing more than deferred despair."

  3. 3."I was . . . a JAG lawyer with a Combat Infantry Badge, living proof that even lawyers have balls."

  4. 4."Ultimately all war stories are bullshit... From the Iliad to the Granada invasion, it is all bullshit."

  5. 5."[Dueling's] been outlawed in the Army for over a hundred years. Takes a lot of the fun out of garrison life."

  6. 6."[He] looked sort of honest, so he wasn't CIA."

  7. 7."Sometimes you have to rat someone out, but never rat out a friend. Pick an Ivy League grad whenever you can."

  8. 8."Nostalgia is basically the ability to forget the things that sucked."

  9. 9."Munitions is one thing we never ran out of.We ran out of will."

  10. 10. "I guessed that they had all been officers, probably army or marines, because they didn't have the sloppy and goofy mannerisms of air force officers."

  11. 11. "It was interesting that the Viets assumed all Americans were anti-Communist. I guess they hadn't met any Ivy League professors."

  12. 12. "There are descending circles of hell... and every soldier is convinced he's in the worst circle."

  13. 13. "If you were inside one of these things [concrete pillbox] when it took a direct hit, it would scramble your brains... We used to call it becoming a marine."

  14. 14. "[A] senior colonel trying to get a star was like a high school girl trying to get a date the night before the prom; blow jobs were not out of the questions."

  15. 15. "I've never actually known a war story to get smaller with a retelling."

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Cosmic Mind And The Holographic Paradigm

Hypotheses, hypotheses…

The present day concept we hold of the Universe is far beyond anything the early Greek Philosophers such as Aristotle had in mind. In ancient geocentric views of the Universe, the earth held a primary position and the stars and planets (wanderers) of the heavens were just lights in a celestial sphere. There was no concept of a galaxy, supergalaxy, or cluster or supercluster in those ancient days. So the first thing we know about our Universe today is that we have a greatly enhanced concept of its size and its complexity. There are many more objects in our Universe than dreamt of by our ancient ancestors.

As concepts in Cosmology* improve, our understanding of the origin of our Universe and life in the Universe at large increase. When we consider our stature as humans, we may feel overwhelmed by the immensity of not just the visible universe, but the prospect of multiple universes. We then proceed from big U to little u. The prevailing scenario for the creation of the universe in Cosmology is called Inflation.** This model developed by Alan Guth of M.I.T. goes beyond the Big Bang. Essentially, Guth says that in the initial stages of creation the universe underwent a period of rapid inflation as if a balloon were expanded by a helium pump. There are up to 50 variations of this theory with little prospect of proving any one of them except by extremely delicate measurements made by instrumented satellites.

Not only are theories of creation of our universe being contemplated by cosmologists, but theories on the creation of many universes. These new theories seem to reflect an older idea that perhaps there was no beginning and no end to the creation of universes. That several universes may exist is a conclusion reached both in the world of macrophysics and microphysics, the world predominated by quantum theory.

In the philosophy of science books have been written about the Anthropic Principle. This principle states that if any of the physical constants were to vary from the fine-tuned values we have determined for them that life in the universe would be impossible. It is reasoned that the properties of our universe are special and conducive to life. Speculation has ensued on the whys and wherefores.

Finally we come to the gist of our thesis. The late Fred Hoyle, who died recently at age 86, will be remembered as one of the most distinguished and controversial scientists of the 20th century. Soon after the end of the second world war he became widely known both by scientists and the public as one of the originators of a new theory of the universe. He was a fluent writer and speaker and became the main expositor of this new theory of the steady state, or continuous creation, according to which the universe had existed for an infinite past time and would continue infinitely into the future, as opposed to what Hoyle styled the "big bang" theory.

Hoyle wrote a seminal book he titled The Intelligent Universe. He made many controversial statements in his book that raised the ire of the scientific community, but he was never one to shy away from a good argument and he engaged his critics with challenges that were impossible to ignore.

Central to the debate is whether life in the universe is a matter of accident, whether unguided events led to the evolution of all forms of life on earth. Hoyle concludes that random events and chance occurrences are insufficient to account for the complexity of living organisms and that a cosmic control system exists, that there is a hierarchy of intelligences beyond human up to a limit we call God. This was a most disturbing statement to make as a scientist and a former atheist.

According to Hoyle, "Once we see, however, that the probability of life originating at random is so utterly minuscule as to make it absurd, it becomes sensible to think that the favorable properties of physics, on which life depends, are in every respect DELIBERATE... It is therefore, almost inevitable that our own measure of intelligence must reflect higher intelligences.. even to the limit of God."

He also said, "The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein... I am at a loss to understand biologists' widespread compulsion to deny what seems to me to be obvious."

And further, "I don't know how long it is going to be before astronomers generally recognize that the combinatorial arrangement of not even one among the many thousands of biopolymers on which life depends could have been arrived at by natural processes here on the earth. Astronomers will have a little difficulty in understanding this because they will be assured by biologists that it is not so, the biologists having been assured in their turn by others that it is not so. The 'others' are a group of persons who believe, quite openly, in mathematical miracles. They advocate the belief that tucked away in nature, outside of normal physics, there is a law which performs miracles (provided the miracles are in the aid of biology). This curious situation sits oddly on a profession that for long has been dedicated to coming up with logical explanations of biblical miracles... It is quite otherwise, however, with the modern miracle workers, who are always to be found living in the twilight fringes of thermodynamics."

He even wrote a further book titled The Mathematics of Evolution. In this he attempts to show with mathematics the constraints imposed on any Darwinian theory of evolution. Again critics attacked his work and even called his conclusions wrong.

Was Hoyle wrong or do we live in an intelligent universe, not one governed solely by blind chance?

The newest discoveries indicate that the expansion of our universe is accelerating and that our universe is filled with a mysterious dark energy and an equally mysterious quantity of dark matter.

universal expansion
Intelligent Design: A new cavalry has rushed to the rescue and calls its thesis, “Intelligent Design”. This new movement, starting with life sciences, has further raised the ire of conventional scientists. Critics of this rising tide of advocates allege that those who back this concept are just the old Christian Creationist in a new suit of clothes. However, Hoyle was no Creationist, and neither is Dr. Richard Thompson who prefers Eastern Religious Philosophy to that of Western. Also, advocates of ID say they are not Creationists in the old sense of the term and only wish to present an alternate paradigm for understanding life in the universe.

Who are these leading advocates of Intelligent Design? One is William A. Dembski, a philosopher and logician and Michael Behe, a very insightful biochemist. These two have been prolific in writing on this subject and are heavily criticized by the Darwinist who will not concede to Intelligent Design as science. It is predicted that this debate will grow.

Dembski describes the theory behind ID in an abstract: “For the scientific community intelligent design represents creationism's latest grasp at scientific legitimacy. Accordingly, intelligent design is viewed as yet another ill-conceived attempt by creationists to straightjacket science within a religious ideology. But in fact intelligent design can be formulated as a scientific theory having empirical consequences and devoid of religious commitments. Intelligent design can be unpacked as a theory of information. Within such a theory, information becomes a reliable indicator of design as well as a proper object for scientific investigation. Thus, perhaps information can be reliably detected and measured, and a conservation law formulated that governs the origin and flow of information. The broad conclusion may be that information is not reducible to natural causes, and that the origin of information is best sought in intelligent causes. Intelligent design thereby becomes a theory for detecting and measuring information, explaining its origin, and tracing its flow.

the universe
Information Theory: This brings us to other considerations that have been proposed for a universe that is rich in information. Cyberneticist David Foster also wrote a book he titled The Intelligent Universe, but his concept was the universe as data, as a cybernetic entity. Some of his concepts were simplistic and speculative, but he paved the way for more sophisticated theories of a cybernetic universe. These tentative theories see the universe as information and the information is processed according to instructions as one finds in a computer program. Of course, these theories imply the hidden existence of a programmer. We have had God as an Architect, a Dreamer, a Mathematician, an Engineer, and a Programmer. All of this seems rational, but scientists prefer the non-invocation of intelligent agents in the process of creation.

Mathematics: The importance of mathematics to science is such that we would not have science without mathematics. Quantities, measurements, equations, and formulas give us exactness in science. Probability theory has been used to demonstrate the improbability of a universe by accident. The internal harmony of universal processes can be analyzed with the aid of mathematics.

PI: The recurrent use of this mathematical ratio throughout physics and all natural sciences gives us one of the fundamental bases of all dynamic processes.

PHI: The Golden Section, the Fibonacci sequence has been found throughout the biological world and was a proportion most revered by the Greeks in architecting and arts.

E: The basis of the natural logarhythms is also found in many physical equations.

The Fine Structure Constant: designated as a = 0.007297352533 is one of those ubiquitous numbers found throughout microphysics.

There are so many special numbers and equations that show up in theories of the physical world that it is a marvel that we can use the predictive power of mathematics to forecast the future.

Consciousness: The last great frontier. We know of its existence in living entities, but its source and nature remains a scientific mystery. The pundits of the East say that all reality is based on consciousness.

Though all the galaxies emerge from him, He is without form and unconditioned. (Tejabindu Upanishad 6)

The Eastern view of consciousness is that it is the Supreme Reality, and though we live in a world of form and condition, it itself remains without form or condition and projects all that we witness. The western view is that consciousness is restricted to organisms, with the human as the highest expression of consciousness. New ideas treat consciousness as universal and omnipresent.

Attempts are being made to construct a science of consciousness which calls on many disciplines. A recent conference on consciousness studies lists these subjects:

  • Philosophy: conceptual foundations, qualia, ontology, explanation, self, intentionality, mental causation, reality, free will

  • Neuroscience: neural correlates of consciousness, neuropsychology, vision, motor control, blindsight, anesthetic and psychoactive drugs, binding/integration

  • Cognitive Science and Psychology: implicit processes, attention, metacognition, memory, language, emotion, sleep, cognitive models, artificial intelligence, animal consciousness

  • Physical and Biological Sciences: quantum theory, space and time, evolution, biophysics, medicine, computational theory, quantum computation and information, life

  • Phenomenology and Culture: first-person methods, religion and contemplative studies, anthropology, transpersonal psychology, hypnosis, parapsychology, aesthetics.

That such a basic subject calls upon our most developed sciences and progressive minds gives us an idea on how we are evolving toward a greater understanding of our role in the universe.

The Holographic Paradigm: The concept of the universe as a giant hologram containing both matter and consciousness as a single field will excite anyone who has asked the question, 'What is reality?'

London physicist David Bohm, a former protégé of Einstein's and one of the world's most respected quantum physicists, and Stanford neurophysiologist Karl Pribram, one of the architects of our modern understanding of the brain -- believe that the universe itself may be a giant hologram, quite literally a kind of image or construct created, at least in part, by the human mind. This remarkable new way of looking at the universe explains not only many of the unsolved puzzles of physics, but also such mysterious occurrences as telepathy, out-of-body and near-death experiences, "lucid" dreams, and even religious and mystical experiences such as feelings of cosmic unity and miraculous healings.

Borrowing ideas from holographic photography, the hologram is Bohm's favorite metaphor for conveying the structure of the Implicate Order. Holography relies upon wave interference. If two wavelengths of light are of differing frequencies, they will interfere with each other and create a pattern. "Because a hologram is recording detail down to the wavelength of light itself, it is also a dense information storage." Bohm notes that the hologram clearly reveals how a "total content--in principle extending over the whole of space and time--is enfolded in the movement of waves (electromagnetic and other kinds) in any given region." The hologram illustrates how "information about the entire holographed scene is enfolded into every part of the film." It resembles the Implicate Order in the sense that every point on the film is "completely determined by the overall configuration of the interference patterns." Even a tiny chunk of the holographic film will reveal the unfolded form of an entire three-dimensional object.

Proceeding from his holographic analogy, Bohm proposes a new order -- the Implicate Order where "everything is enfolded into everything." This is in contrast to the explicate order where things are unfolded. Bohm puts it thus:

"The actual order (the Implicate Order) itself has been recorded in the complex movement of electromagnetic fields, in the form of light waves. Such movement of light waves is present everywhere and in principle enfolds the entire universe of space and time in each region. This enfoldment and unfoldment takes place not only in the movement of the electromagnetic field but also in that of other fields (electronic, protonic, etc.). These fields obey quantum-mechanical laws, implying the properties of discontinuity and non-locality. The totality of the movement of enfoldment and unfoldment may go immensely beyond what has revealed itself to our observations. We call this totality by the name holomovement."

Bohm believes that the Implicate Order has to be extended into a multidimensional reality; in other words, the holomovement endlessly enfolds and unfolds into infinite dimensionality. Within this milieu there are independent sub-totalities (such as physical elements and human entities) with relative autonomy. The layers of the Implicate Order can go deeper and deeper to the ultimately unknown. It is this "unknown and indescribable totality" that Bohm calls the holomovement. The holomovement is the "fundamental ground of all matter."

Finally, the manifest world is part of what Bohm refers to as the "explicate order." It is secondary, derivative; it "flows out of the law of the Implicate Order." Within the Implicate Order, there is a "totality of forms that have an approximate kind of recurrence (changing), stability, and separability." It is these forms, according to Bohm, that make up our manifest world.

Bohm’s implicate order also led Bohm to consider a super intelligent agent as a causative force in the universe.

Some see the vision of a Cosmic Mind who has created, and is creating a manifold reality based on pure thought that manifests itself as order and energy, as a universe.

Cosmic Evolution: All evolution, whether particulate, galactic, biological, or mental is part of one virtually infinite progression and unfolding of an intelligent consciousness as a universe full of life. That this evolution may be charted, and studied at this stage in our sciences is remarkable and is probably one of the foremost studies that we could undertake. Science has previously left out of its purview subjects of spiritual interest such life after death or reincarnation or a search for moral and ethical laws beyond the purely mundane physical. The restrictive, reductionist approach to science is undergoing transformation with new holistic approaches and incursions into off-limit territories. Perhaps we will see the dawning of a new understanding of existence before the human race rushes to its ultimate extinction.

* Cosmology: A branch of study concerned with the origins and nature of the universe

** Inflation: Guth's startling theory states that in the billion-trillion-trillionth of a second before the big bang, there was a period of hyper-rapid "inflation" that got the big bang started.

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Einstein's God Theory

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein and his Idea of God

"The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most elementary forms - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life, and that of his fellow-creatures, as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life." Albert Einstein.

"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most primitive forms - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

"The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future to him is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair. A scientist's religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

"What an extraordinary situation is that for us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose we know not, though we sometimes think we feel it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow man - in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to the simple life and am often oppressed by the feeling that I am engrossing an unnecessary amount of the labor of my fellow men…. The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred - that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate." Albert Einstein


Early in life Einstein became absorbed in this question: "How can all the complicated and immeasurable activities observed in nature be reduced to simple mathematical formulae?" It is interesting to note that while Einstein was preoccupied with the task of thinking out a basic and comprehensive theory by which all occurrences in nature could be understood and explained, another young German student, whose first name was also Albert, was preoccupied with the task of thinking out a basic and comprehensive theory by which the ethical impulses of human beings could be understood and explained. It is highly interesting to me to discover that Einstein and Schweitzer, as I understand them, have come to about the same conclusion concerning religion and morality. There is a kind of dualism in the thinking of both men that they do not pretend to reconcile, yet they live with the conviction that what may be known objectively and what is sensed subjectively are somehow parts of the same whole. Both men share and are emotionally and ethically guided by the same conviction - that life, as such, is the supreme value, the sacred reality to be dealt with.


In trying to digest Einstein's religious thinking we run into some difficulties. We are not sure we have access to all the important things he has written on the subject. The use he makes of such terms as "God" and "religion" is not always clear to us. We hope that the appraisal of his religion will not be too far wrong.

In defining the place of religion in human life he said, "the purpose of science is to develop, without prejudice, a knowledge of the facts and the laws of nature. The even more important task of religion, on the other hand, is to develop the conscience, the ideals and the aspirations of mankind." This statement and a few others, standing apart from the rest of his comments on religion, give the impression that, in his thinking, religion and science have nothing in common. However, the religion that we see reflected in his writings and activities is the result of the infusion of his scientific search for truth and his emotional search for ideals, motives and goals - as much so as a child is an infusion of the physical characteristics of his parents.

As it is revealed in his own writings, there are three things about Einstein's concept of religion that must not be overlooked if we are to come near to grasping its significance for us and for our generation. First, his religion has nothing in common with any kind of belief in a personal God. Second, at the heart of his religion there is what he calls "cosmic religious feeling." Third, the ethical motivation of his religion is determined by a "feeling of sympathy" or "reverence for life."


The use that Einstein has made of the term "God", as a figure of speech, has given the impression to some that he holds to some kind of belief in a supernatural being. This is a false conclusion. He has spoken very plainly on this subject. In discussing science and religion he observed "the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in the concept of a personal God." He then goes on to tell why such a concept of God is impossible for the scientists. "The more," he said, "a man is imbued with the ordered regularity of all events the firmer becomes his conviction that there is no room left by the side of this ordered regularity for causes of a different nature. For him neither the rule of the human nor the rule of the divine will exist as an independent cause of natural events."

Einstein admits that the concept of a personal God interfering with natural events could never be refuted by science. "For," he said, "this doctrine can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot." However, he goes on to say, to stoop to such behavior is unworthy of the representative of religion, and for them to do so would be fatal to the cause of religion and do great harm to human progress. He then concludes by saying, "In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests. In their labors they will have to avail themselves of those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself. This is, to be sure, a more difficult but an incomparably more worthy task. After religious teachers accomplish the refining process indicated they will surely recognize with joy that true religion has been ennobled and made more profound by scientific knowledge."

Einstein's Universe

So it is perfectly clear that Einstein's religion is void of any kind of belief in a personal God. But that does not mean that his religion leaves him without any emotional attachment to the universe. By what he calls "cosmic religious feeling" he maintains a "profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence;" keeps aglow an abiding "faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason." It is mystical feeling, a feeling of reverence, toward the laws of the universe.

Einstein admits it is a feeling "difficult to explain to anyone who is entirely without it, especially as there is no anthropomorphic conception of God corresponding to it." It is a kind of religious feeling that "knows no dogma and no God conceived in man's image." It gives rise "to no definite notion of a God and no theology." It is Einstein's contention that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this cosmic religious feeling and keep it alive in everyone who is capable of it. He believes that it is the kind of religious feeling that possessed the great religious personalities of all ages. It seems consistent with Einstein's thinking to say that the quality of the influence of this cosmic religious feeling in the life of an individual is determined by the quality of his awareness of the wonders of the universe and his reverence and awe for the incomprehensible reason, beauty and harmony back of the dependable laws of nature.


In varying degrees I believe that most of us have experienced this profound feeling that Einstein calls cosmic religious feeling. It may have been while looking at a beautiful sunset, or on hearing a great piece of music, or while gazing out into the spaces between the stars at night or when standing still on the shore of the sea. Poet Ella Brooks Wilson describes this feeling in a poem that was published in the September 1950 issue of "Woman's Home Companion." The tile of the poem is ALONE ON A BEACH.

On highland I measure
Myself by a tree,
But there's nothing
To measure me here by the sea,
Save width of the water
And height of the sky -
What awe-filling vastness
To measure myself by!
There's practically nothing
To note where I stand.
The I that was me
Is a dot on the sand.

Einstein tries to give us some idea of the influence that "cosmic religious feeling" has in his own life by saying, "The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole…by way of the understanding (which underpins cosmic religious feeling) he achieves a far-reaching emancipation from the shackles of personal hopes and desires, and thereby attains that humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, and which, in its profoundest depths is inaccessible to man."

Such an attitude appears to Einstein "to be religious in the highest sense of the word." And to the extent that science cultivates and increases the influence of such a religious feeling it "not only purifies the religious impulse but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life."


So much for the nature and appraisal of the cosmic religious feeling that is the pith of Einstein's religion. From what source does his religion get its ethical motivation? By selecting certain statements and attempting to understand them out of context it is possible to conclude that Einstein seeks to disassociate ethics or morality altogether from religion. Take, for example these statements, "He (who is influenced by cosmic religious feeling) has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion…. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair… A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary." His use of the term "religious" in this context, and saying that he has no use for social or moral religion seem to say that he is not interested in morality and that his religion is divorced from ethics. A careful reading of these same remarks in their context will reveal that such is not what he means to say.

What he means by "social and moral religion" is the kind of ethics that are motivated by a "moral conception of God" - a belief in "the God of Providence who protects, disposes, rewards, and punishes, the God who, according to the width of the believer's outlook, loves and cherishes the life of the tribe or of the human race, or even life as such, the comforter in sorrow and unsatisfied longing, who preserves the souls of the dead. That is the social or moral conception of God." In saying that no religious basis is necessary for morality he means that belief in such a concept of God is not necessary; that ethics and morality are independent of a belief in any kind of superhuman moral will or force in the universe.

In the light of his great knowledge and understanding of the nature and laws of the universe, and in loyalty to his deep respect, awe and reverence for the profound reason and intelligence that he sees hinted at in the harmony of natural law, Albert Einstein is humbly confessing that as far as he can know and understand there is no thoughtful or willful being or force beyond man that is concerned with or interested in human values; that he has no reason whatsoever to justify a belief that there is any source of morality greater that the "feeling of sympathy" or "reverence for life" that is manifested in human beings. Therefore, there is no superhuman or divine source of morality. "It is a purely human affair." Thus it is clear that the source of the ethical motivation of Einstein's religion is nowhere else than in our human capacity to show sympathy or reverence for life.


I can see how Einstein's religious ideas may shock and disturb the mental poise of those who still find moral guidance through beliefs in some kind of supernatural source or morality. To those I am sure Einstein would say they ought not take his words for more than they are - just the reflection of the honest opinions and convictions of one mortal being, who, like all men, knows only in part, and is forced to give meaning and purpose to his life without the benefit of infallible knowledge. Give up no belief until they find a better one to take its place.


For those to whom traditional religious beliefs have lost their meaning, and can no longer confront them with that which is profound and sacred in the world, nor provide them with an authoritative source of morality, for such ones Einstein's religion should be as welcome and as useful as the appearing of a lighted candle in a dark room. To them his religion offers a way of thinking that can provide them with the feeling of being at home in the strange and fantastic universe that science has revealed. It can imbue them with a faith in the rationality of nature that will keep alive their sense of wonder and a thirst of truth, while at the same time free them from all the hangover fears of the unknown that were exploited by so much of the religious thinking of the past. While humbling them with a greater awareness of the profound mystery and beauty of truth and life, it can lead them on in every direction in search for more knowledge and understanding of all things.


In pointing to the feeling of sympathy in their own hearts as the highest source of morality, Einstein's religion places those who can be inspired by it under an inward moral authority that can keep them conscious of the personal and super-personal values to which they may devote themselves and so find a sense of moral direction and judgment that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. It can enable them to know without rational proof, without fear of punishment in hell, or without any hope of heavenly rewards, that their lives have meaning and worth, in so far as what they do makes life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful."

It is a religion that gives one affinity with the totality of things, through the sense of harmony made manifest in nature - a religion that enables one to find in humanity itself those forces "which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful"

CLOSING WORDS: " The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, or the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge." Albert Einstein
Einstein's laugh
~All quotations in this paper, not otherwise identified, were taken from:
Albert Einstein - "Out of My Later Years"
Albert Einstein - "The World As I See It"
Phillip Frank - "Einstein, His Life and Times"
John B. Isom - "The Religion of Einstein"

Sticking it out at you!...and just for a laugh, have a look at Albert's Annual Performance Review (1905), when he was employed by the Swiss Patent Office -- so much for the validity of such idiotic appraisals!

1905 Annual Performance Review: Albert Einstein
[contains other interesting links]

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
~Albert Einstein

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The Bitter Sweetness of Nostalgia

Ennui & Nostalgia
NOSTALGIA, AS A FORM OF MEMORY, IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF OUR everyday world; its presence is indisputable. But like memory, nostalgia is an evasive concept of often-ambiguous meanings. Perhaps we should begin by asking: What exactly is nostalgia? Or maybe the first question really should be: What exactly was nostalgia? Are we nostalgic for people, places, specific points in time, or simply the past as precedent? Questions of this sort invite historical study, but they have, at best, aroused only limited interest. Such a stance is curious given that a detailed examination of nostalgia could advance understanding of the history of memory and the ways individuals have used historical material to define and understand themselves, issues that have been the vanguard of recent research in southern history.

With its Greek roots -- nostos (a longing to return home) and algos (pain) -- nostalgia sounds so familiar to us that we may forget that it is a relatively new word. It was used first by the Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer, who in 1688 described a lethal malady among Swiss mercenaries serving abroad. Desperate to return home, the soldiers became apathetic and weak, lost both sleep and their appetites, and then, crestfallen, died. The "emotional upheaval" of serving abroad was "related to the workings of memory" and was reckoned to be a disorder of the imagination. In effect, the stricken Swiss opted out of the seventeenth century by screening out the world around them. By the nineteenth century, however, nostalgia began to shed its medical connotations and became less a bodily and more a psychological condition. It also went from being a treatable illness to a terminal condition of the mind, its new meaning suggestive of a long-ago but half-remembered time as opposed to a yearning to return to a specific place.

Moreover, the nostalgically remembered past stood against the present and thus invited comparison. The former was made into a spectacle that was beautiful, bearing little or no relation to the ugly latter. In effect, nostalgia makes the past feel safe from the unexpected and the untoward -- in other words, making it so very unlike the present. Rather than remembering precisely what was, we tend to make the past comprehensible in relation to the present conditions of the here and now.

Memory is the great organizer of consciousness. Memories of people, scenes, and events that were previously vague or conflicted metamorphose into obvious and consistent recollections. Memory simplifies and composes our perceptions...

Essentially memory may operate to alter the past we have known and experienced into an imagined past that is a stranger to us and nothing more than a might-have-been.

For a brief theoretical formulation on this point of view we might turn to the sociologists. A recent theory argues that nostalgia is unlike other types of recollection because of the special past that it envelops. Happy memories are placed on a pedestal whereas unhappy memories are knocked off theirs, and we think hard before picking them up, dusting them down, and putting them back again. This has an insidious effect because the diversity of the past is thus suppressed. However, although nostalgia draws its strength from the past, it is unmistakably a product of the present. Nostalgia always appears against the backdrop of massive identity dislocations, in periods of "rude transitions rendered by history," in times of fear in the face of electrifying change, and at those transitional points in life when anxiety or, as some sociologists call it, a hypochondria of the heart, is felt.

Any "untoward historic events" that tear into the fabric of a society, disrupt its taken-for-granted attitudes and practices, and cut short the very "lungs of culture" in which people breathe the air of significance place that society's connection with its history under pressure. Confronted with these "explosive upheavals," we are driven like tumbleweed before the buffeting winds of change and upheaval. Hence, the desire to preserve a thread of continuity is crucial. Everything contradictory threatens to undermine what has been so patiently built up.

Nostalgia looks to alleviate this condition by exploiting the past in specially reconstructed ways. In doing so, nostalgia cultivates an appreciative stance toward "former selves," it acts to restore a sense of sociohistoric continuity, and it allows time for change to be assimilated, restoring confidence and imparting meaningful links with the past. In other words, nostalgia sweetens history with sentiment, its iconography of praise is constant, and it is accustomed to remember more romantically than historically.

dividing the essays


Our unhealthy obsession with the past prevents us from addressing the problems of the future. Looking back, as historians always like to remind their readers, is an entirely natural and even laudable thing to do. There can be few people who are not stirred by unexpected memories of their youth, awakened by a glimpse of an old photograph or a snatch of a half-forgotten hit; there are few pleasures as bittersweet as remembering happy days that can never be recaptured. And yet our current obsession with anniversaries and retrospectives, our willing submersion in the warm, soapy bath of nostalgia, represents a distinctly unhealthy flight from the possibilities of the future.

George Santayana famously wrote that 'those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it', but it seems that whether we remember it or not, we are stuck in an interminable time loop. Talk of the 'nostalgia industry' barely does justice to a vast, multi-million-pound operation designed to exploit our childhood memories and teenage affectations. This season, it would take no effort at all to spend entire days, even weeks, reliving the Sixties and Seventies, perhaps dining on revived brands such as Smash or Spam before strolling out to hear the Rolling Stones in concert or watching the new James Bond film. Television executives strike gold by bringing back Doctor Who and Robin Hood; novelists win fame and fortune by revisiting the UK's Thatcher years or Britain in the Blitz.

This is a more recent phenomenon than we generally realise. Indeed, as mentioned before (see 1st piece above) the very word 'nostalgia' originally had a rather different meaning: coined in 1678, it described expatriate invalids or injured soldiers overcome by an almost physical longing for their native land. Sufferers were treated as if they had contracted some disease and as late as the American Civil War, soldiers diagnosed with nostalgia might be sent on sick leave.

Nostalgia in its current form, however, would have struck them as downright bizarre. Although Victorian ancestors might reflect wistfully on the lost innocence of childhood, they had no wish to spend their leisure hours pretending they were still living 40 years earlier. They might be fascinated by the styles and interests of bygone eras - the art of the Middle Ages, for example - but they were hardly besieging the toy shops for remodelled versions of their old playthings. And the British House of Commons might have resembled a public school, but School Disco would have found few takers.
The Bird of Memories
So what changed? One answer is that we simply have far more to be nostalgic for. The carefree days of adolescence, for instance, are a relatively modern invention. The idea of a distinctive youth culture, set apart from childhood games and adult cares and marked by particular musical and sartorial fashions, only really caught on in the late 1950s. Before then, most people simply left school in their early teens and worked as office boys, shop girls or apprentices.

By contrast, their successors in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, blessed with school holidays, paper rounds and pocket money, had the opportunity and the means to carve out their own cultural niches. They rarely seem like it at the time, but teenage years often represent a brief flowering of security and freedom, insulated from the pressures of maturity. Little wonder, then, that their attraction never seems to pall.

But there is more to it than that. Nostalgia appeals because it feeds, almost parasitically, off a broader sense of pessimism and decline. We turn our eyes to the past because we fear to look to the future. It is no coincidence, for example, that the first great success story of the modern nostalgia industry, the BBC's record-breaking adaptation of The Forsyte Saga in 1967, came at a point when the technological optimism of the post-war era was running out of steam.

Before then, space-age visions had been all the rage; comic books and pulp novels had dreamed of a brighter, better world of monorails and bubble-cars, conversations with computers and trips to the Moon. But by the late Sixties, the economy had run aground, inflation was mounting and Britain was heading for the sick bay. In a world where the future suddenly looked a frightening prospect, the intrigues of the Edwardians proved unexpectedly seductive.

One man asked angrily in the press 'Why shouldn't we enjoy it?', in tones familiar today. 'We are sick to death of living in a world where we are exhorted to be different from what we are by critics and politicians... no wonder we are happy to escape for 45 minutes each week into a world of elegance and good manners!'

The success of the Forsytes was a sign of things to come and, ever since, with growing momentum and appeal, nostalgic escapism has sunk roots into contemporary British culture. True, this is not merely a British phenomenon, but an inevitable result of the pressures of modernity. Hollywood loves nothing better than to wallow in a fictionalised version of the 1950s, all high-school prom and Mom's apple pie, while, rather more weirdly, the German idea of Ostalgie has reinvented East Germany as a lost world of socialist innocence.

But nobody does nostalgia better than we do in the UK. Historians often complain that nobody cares about the past any more, but popular history sells better in Britain than anywhere else on the planet, while castles and country houses pull in hundreds of thousands of visitors. And we may have lost an empire, but we lead the world in Second World War documentaries and 1960s compilation albums.

But whatever its compensations, nostalgia can be a dangerous and addictive habit. Yes, we are better off without that naive faith in the inevitability of progress that disfigured the 20th century; and yes, the combination of climate change, consumer debt, economic globalisation, international terrorism and all the rest suggests that tomorrow might be tougher than today. But harking back to sentimental versions of the past will hardly help to solve the problems of the future. It is better to face our challenges head-on than to cower in the false escapism of the everlasting school reunion.

Let's now concentrate on...


The Sixties. All you have to do is say it out loud, and people of a certain age immediately smile. Kids today are wearing Sixties fashions – bell bottoms, peasant tops, faux fur trimmed jackets – largely in tribute to this great decade. When the Sixties happened, the Western world came of age. It was a ten-year renaissance; music changed, art changed, computers came into widespread use, and the television changed the way people perceived their relationship with the Establishment forever.

Shouts Heard Round The World: Sixties History

For a decade that claimed to be all about peace, the Sixties were remarkably violent. In America, President Kennedy was assassinated, followed by his brother. Reverent Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. War erupted in Southeast Asia – again. In Britain, troops went to Northern Ireland in a “limited operation,” where they remain to this day. Violence begat violence on campuses all around the world. And the youth started making their voices heard.

But there was much more to Sixties history than violence. In fact, the refrain “Make Love, Not War,” was the true chant of the younger generation, led by emerging rock bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. And with these rock bands, Britain re-invaded and conquered its former colonies; there were times that American rock bands couldn’t even make it onto the charts.
But if the British conquered America’s music scene, America slipped in and conquered the British television and movie scene – at least for a while. Star Trek and cartoons like the Flintstones became wildly popular in Britain, just as they were in the States. And Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne stalked the big screens, both mesmerizingly attractive in their own ways.

With the invention of the birth control pill, free love became another mantra (and “mantra” is another word introduced in the Sixties). Young men and women were freer to have relationships with one another, and they did. With this one change, the entire relation between men and women was undermined; no longer did “good girls” have to stay celibate to remain out of trouble. And now both young men and women were free to explore their sexuality. It made a more profound impact in Western society than most of us want to admit, even today.

All You Need Is Love: Sixties Events

Renaissance. From the bottom to the top, the Sixties were a time of change on every level. And you could tell. The most remarkable change was in the transformation from the socially-conservative fifties to the anything-goes seventies. This volcanic change was brought about by huge changes beneath the surface.

Probably the most important change was in how people saw one another. Women and men suddenly had a different, and more complex, relationship than ever before. Ethnic groups, too, were making their voices known in more and more places around the world. In the US particularly, Blacks and Native Americans participated in radical movements to change the discriminatory habits of their homeland. This enormous social and cultural movement spilled over into Europe and Africa, and was watched with great interest by the rest of the world. Would America be destabilized or changed forever?

In Britain, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other rock bands took over the music scene. The Americans weren’t far behind; Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Aretha Franklin emerged as major talents in the second half of the decade. These bands are still played regularly on the radio today, and those who are still alive still perform today.

Have It Your Way: Sixties Food

Yet again, the Sixties contradicts itself; at the same time fast food restaurants started to develop the patterns they still hold today, health food and vegetarianism were gaining steadily in the eating habits of ordinary people. Hippies and other socially-conscious groups chose to eat no meat because they didn’t believe in killing animals, and they grew food organically because they believed in harmonizing with their environment.

But the Sixties is where McDonalds started growing strongly, challenged by Burger King and Burger Chef, and when a 65-year-old loser named Harlan Sanders opened a restaurant he called Kentucky Fried Chicken. While some were eating healthier food than people had ever eaten before, others were eating food that would lead to obesity and many other serious health problems that still exist today.

Fun For A Girl And A Boy: Sixties Toys

The golden couple of the Sixties were undoubtedly Barbie and Ken (although Sindy and Paul were pretty close). These lifelike, though not anatomically correct, dolls and their armies of friends and accessories fulfilled many little girls’ dreams, and shaped how they thought about becoming a woman. Barbie was the first career woman many girls came in contact with, and she was very unlike their mothers! The boys weren’t left out, though; Matchbox cars were introduced for them, and vintage Sixties Matchbox cars are still collectors’ items today.

For older kids, Twister was invented in the Sixties; it’s still popular today both as the old game and as more adult versions.

They Had A Dream: Sixties Celebrities

The Sixties were a time of excitement, and there’s no denying that this was because of the people of the Sixties. From cultural icons like Marilyn and the Beatles, to politicians and leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK, to group movements like hippies and Black Panthers, the unique energy of the people of the Sixties gave shape to the decade.

Do You Remember When We...: Sixties Memorabilia

Today, you can get a little taste of the Sixties again by collecting memorabilia. There are people who decorate entire rooms in a Sixties theme. If you don’t have the money to pick up authentic Sixties collectibles, you can always buy some of the newer Sixties-inspired products.

For instance, lava lamps are back with a vengeance, as are psychedelic colors and designs. There are entire stores based around selling Sixties movie and concert posters. Beatles memorabilia, authentic memorabilia, is not as expensive as you might think; the Beatles were the first celebrities with their faces stamped on practically everything, and as a result you can find coffee cups, coasters, plates, clothes, and lunchboxes generously decorated with the Fab Four’s faces. Inflatable furniture is back too, just like bell bottoms and miniskirts.

The Sixties may be gone. But they’ll never be forgotten.

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Smelling the Memories

There are some powerful odours that can pass
Out of the stoppard flagon; even glass
To them is porous. Oft when some old box
Brought from the East is opened and the locks
And hinges creak and cry; or in a press
In some deserted house, where the sharp stress
Of odours old and dusty fills the brain;
An ancient flask is brought to light again
And forth the ghosts of long-dead odours creep.

When opening a perfume bottle and receiving a jolt that lifts some recollection from the depth of memory, I often think of Charles Baudelaire’s The Flask. The word perfume derives from Latin: per means through, fumum signifies smoke. Through the smoke of incense offerings to the gods… Through the mist of time, the past comes back in veils of images long lost under the layers of information the brain processes on daily basis.

Three percent of our genes are devoted to olfaction, which is an impressive number.

According to neuroscience, odors are detected in a patch of about 100,000 olfactory receptor neurons whose axons project through a thin portion of the frontal skull to the olfactory bulb. In comparison to visual and auditory receptors (four and one, respectively), the number of olfactory receptors is much higher, about 1,000. Moreover, unlike other receptors, they are continuously replaced.

Rome, view from Tiber

    I step into the blinding Roman sunlight, determined to take a walk despite the heat. The scent of Trastevere's aromas mixed with a hint of trattoria food preparations almost changes the scenery around me, taking me back to my youth, where I was roaming those vicoli with my dearest friend, dreaming revolutions in the 60s.

    And suddenly, I am standing in Villa Borghese, not knowing how I arrived there.
    Scents, memories, sudden emotions. Flights of fancy and past returning...

Time travelling.
Yet, the scent can not only conjure the past, it can shape new longings and new visions. Baudelaire’s poem, Exotic Perfume, explores the images that the poet envisions after inhaling his lover’s perfume:

Islands of Lethe where exotic boughs
Bend with their burden of strange fruit bowed down,
Where men are upright, maids have never grown
Unkind, but bear a light upon their brows.
Led by that perfume to these lands of ease,
I see a port where many ships have flown
With sails outwearied of the wandering seas

I remember in my late teens burning a particular candle, scented with lavender and lilac, while listening to the music of Simon & Garfunkel, Velvet Underground, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, and the then-psychedelic Beatles. To this day, those scents conjure up powerful memories of that wonderful and troubled time, and the potent mix of emotions that defined me, my generation and the age we lived in. There are no words to describe this -- when I'm exposed to these smells, in any context, they penetrate immediately into my amygdala and hippocampus, bypassing the brain's logical circuits and evoking pure, vivid emotion and forgotten memories. I must consciously and physically resist the instant and overwhelming instinct to cry, so overcome am I with the rush of pure feeling, stunning recollection.

When I travel (and I do it a lot), especially when I go overseas for brief visits, I know what city I am in, and could tell you where I was even if I was deaf and blind, by the unique odour that absolutely distinguishes each city. Suddenly I recall the smallest details of parks, restaurants, landmarks I've only seen once and which never even registered in my conscious mind. Take away the olfactory clues, and all is once again forgotten.

Proust tells it well... the madeleine, remember?
Let me smell it.

~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~ . ~

Hey, don't smoke!

But let’s have another look at our noses, in a more scientific sort of way...


Hey, you really stink!

Each of you has a unique, genetically determined odour. Your aroma is so unique that a trained dog can trace your path, undistracted by the myriad of smells with which your spoor has been mixed. The structure of chemosensory communication is wonderfully ancient: coelenterates, nematodes, arthropods, and mammals, including humans, identify themselves and their biologic status by chemistry—the release of specific chemicals into the local environs. All living creatures from the simplest algae or amoeba to highly sophisticated human beings identify themselves by chemicals which are recognized by specialized cells that constitute the olfactory system. Each human being has a unique identifying odour linked to his or her histocompatibility genotype. One of my mentors in medicine, Lewis Thomas, suggested 20 years ago that a bloodhound's nose would be a more accurate method of selecting donors and recipients for organ transplantation than all of the laboratory testing. But no one has taken his suggestion seriously.

Blue Curl


The olfactory mechanism is exquisitely sensitive; only a few molecules of an odorant are needed to produce recognition and awareness of odour. With recognition comes memory and associations, setting in motion a variety of learned responses. We know the world around us by olfactory information, and we divide our world of odours into the foul and the fragrant. The olfactory history of humankind reveals culturally determined nosologies of smells: what is considered desirable and fragrant in one place or era can be considered foul and fetid in another place or era. Your nose contains 3 signalling systems, each mediated by a separate set of cells and chemicals.

Recent studies have distinguished the olfactory sensation, which is mediated by the first cranial nerve, from pain and touch sense, which is mediated by the fifth cranial nerve. Airborne chemicals interact with both first and fifth cranial nerve receptors; with cranial nerve I the result is aroma, with cranial nerve V the result can be irritation and discomfort in subjects predisposed in unknown ways. The irritant reflex from somatic sensory nerves results in neurogenic inflammation, which can mimic the inflammatory response of atopic allergy. The sensual nature of the nose is enhanced by the discovery of a human vomeronasal organ, which is the organ for specific chemosensory recognition and signalling. The vomeronasal receptors bind chemical molecules of differing sizes and signals, some of which are not volatile and must be presented in liquid form.

Vomeronasal receptor cells have neuronal connections inside and outside of the olfactory system, so that some recognition chemicals can produce physiologic and psychological effects without odour. Human pheromones, our chemical identity and signalling molecules, are the essential stimuli of the vomeronasal system. Some but not all pheromones are odorant molecules, stimulating olfactory receptors as well, and some odorant molecules have structural similarity to pheromones.


Many creatures select their reproductive mates by smell, using chemical identification and recognition to identify appropriate breeding partners. Insect pheromones are potent odorants and attractants: minuscule numbers of pheromone molecules will call males from surprising distances. Inbred mice will breed preferentially with hybrid mice or other breeds if given the choice; in fact, a female mouse fertilized by her own breed will spontaneously abort when exposed to the odour of a hybrid male. Scent and sex are a biologically ancient connection, and Homo sapiens is no exception. Human pheromones have been identified and control reproduction in subtle ways. For example, women exude a pheromone that regulates menstruation and ovulation so that women living in close contact, as in college dormitories, will tend to cycle synchronously after several months.

Nasal structure

The chemical structures of perfumes and resin-based incense and mammalian pheromones — the chemical signals of identity and sexual attraction — are similar, and the two are reported to smell alike. The link between perfumes and seduction is as old as the use of burnt offerings and incense. Indigenous cultures used fumigation with incense and applications of fragrant oils to prepare women for their bridal night. Circe sets the tableau for the seduction of Ulysses using aromatic philtres. Solomon was courted by the Queen of Sheba, who brought the fragrant gums and spices of Araby as gifts. Judith, in the Old Testament story, anointed her body with redolent unguents in order to seduce, and ultimately slay, Holophernes. The Song of Solomon attests to the sensual importance of odour:

While the king sitteth at his table,
my spikenard sendeth forth the fragrance thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my well beloved unto me:
he shall lie all night between my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna flowers
in the vineyards of Engedi

(Song of Solomon 1:12–14).

Rousseau, that romantic rationalist of the 18th-century Enlightenment, wrote:

The sense of smell is the sense of imagination; giving a stronger tone to the nerves, it greatly disturbs the brain; which explains why it can arouse the amorous temperament momentarily, but eventually exhausts it. Its effects in love-making are well known; the sweet perfume of a dressing-room is not so flimsy a trap as we might think; and I do not know whether to congratulate or to pity the prudent and unfeeling man who has never thrilled to the scent of flowers on his mistress's bosom.

The robust sales of contemporary perfumes for women and for men attest to the continuing potency of scent in human sexual behaviour.


In medicine, Hippocratic tradition emphasized the importance of airs and waters and climate. There were healthful “airs.” There were pathogenic “airs.” Miasmas, the exhalations of swamps and fetid waters, carried disease. Pestilence and epidemic fevers were said to be caused by lethal emanations. Ancient tradition held that foul odours, indicators of decay and poison, could be lethal. Stench signalled danger and the presence of disease. It made eminent sense to combat dangerous mephitic air and fetor with healthful fragrance from burning aromatic herbs.

During the Black Plague that decimated Europe in 1348, the medical faculty in Paris stated:

The “deadly corruption of the air” was due essentially to an illomened conjunction of the stars when vast amounts of diseasebearing and poisoned vapours arose out of the earth and the waters and infected the very substance of air. Through the act of respiration this corrupt atmosphere penetrated into and tainted organisms that were already predisposed to putridness by overeating, intemperance, and excess of passions—factors already mentioned in antiquity — as well as from hot baths, which relaxed and moistened the body.

Through this pronouncement a direct relationship was drawn in the public's mind between the putrefaction of the body and the putrefaction of the atmosphere. In France, from the 13th century on, the term peste or pestilence was used for both the disease and the revolting stench associated with it. The connection between odour and health dominated medical thinking during the 16th and 17th centuries. The persistent Hippocratic notion of “airs and waters” helps to explain the value placed upon aromatic herbs, incense, fumigation, and perfumes: for diseases associated with the air and the things borne by air — odour, putrefaction, and pestilence — airborne remedies could best provide protection or relief.

Inhaling aromatic smoke, or smoking, can alter state of mind by inducing the awareness of the sacred and by the specific pharmacologic effects of the material smoked. Inhaling the smoke from burning aromatic herbs to produce altered awareness is possibly as old as the capacity to control fire. Tubes of stone, wood, reed, and pottery, used to inhale the smoke of hemp and coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), have an ancient history in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Greco-Roman Materia Medica, relying upon the authority of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen, prescribed the inhalation of smoke for the treatment of asthma and cough. In the Middle Ages physicians recommended the smoking of herbs for “windy griefs of the breast”.

Burning scent

Fumigation and inhalation using aromatic herbs and oils continue in present-day use.
Sir Francis Bacon described the artifices, preventives, and medicaments to counteract noxious vapours and to preserve health and potency:

They have in physick, use of pomanders, and knots of powders, for drying of rheums, comforting of the heart, provoking of sleep, etc. For though those things be not so strong as perfumes, yet you may have them continually at your hand; whereas perfumes you can take but at times; and besides, there be divers things that breath better of themselves, than when they come to the fire; as nigella romana, the seed of melanthium, amomum, etc.

Smells of musk, and amber, and civit, are thought to further venerous appetite...

During the 18th century, odour became a serious fashion and health concern. The foul and the fragrant became class markers. The philosophies of the Enlightenment emphasized the importance of the senses as a source of knowledge. Fragrant odours, socially approved aromas, were pleasing and helpful, a stimulant to the imagination.
The importance of olfaction as a component of “enlightenment” magnified the significance of smells. The naturalist Buffon wrote:

A universal organ of feeling, [the nose] is an eye that can see objects, not only where they are, but even where they have been; it is a taste organ by which the animal can savour not only what he can touch and seize upon, but even that which is far away and unattainable; it is the sense by which he is first, most frequently and most certainly given warning, by which he acts, by which he decides and by which he recognizes what is either suited or contrary to his nature, the sense, finally, by which he perceives, feels and chooses what can satisfy his appetite.

Smells were harbingers of danger and distaste. Physicians warned about the stench of pestilence. Social arbiters warned about the unwashed, fetid classes. Sweet-smelling perfumes for the body and the home grew increasingly important, for they labelled the individual as both healthy and high-class. By the late 18th century, cities had grown and were filled with the products of household and industrial combustion and garbage. Cities smelt bad. Medical and municipal authorities had some recommendations:

Flee the stultifying air of the cities, fill your brains with a healthy dose of country air; stop living like automatons; let the universe know you have a soul, however infrequently it be uplifted. If you constantly breathe in the city's air your throat should be swept just as you sweep your chimneys. The fish that lives in muddy waters takes on a slimy taste; the same holds true for men who breathe in only coal smoke and the emanations of the incense offered up to the Goddess Cloacina, whose many alters are constantly areek with it. The brains and lungs of such persons must be impregnated with those vapours...

The 19th century brought the engines and effluvia of industry and the Dickensian urban ghetto. City smoke and stench became the targets of a growing public health movement and sanitary reform.

Aromaphobia has become particularly common and intense during the last half of the 20th century. Never before have socalled bad odours been so systematically pursued. Breath odour, body odour, bathroom odours, and all sorts of natural smells are attacked and suppressed by socially acceptable fragrances, soaps, and disinfectants.

There is remarkable antagonism to odours at the millennial transition. There is no longer talk of the stench of pestilence or the fetor of the poor; rather, we talk about the reek of the toxic waste dump, the pungent fumes of motor vehicle exhaust, and the dangers of tobacco smoke. Contemporary environmental puritanism urges us to believe the syllogism:
Chemicals smell. Cancer is caused by chemicals. Therefore, odours cause cancer.
My guess is that the inextricable connections between combustion, chemosensation, and intimate human behaviour are close to the heart of antismoking sentiment and contemporary chemophobia. The safest environment has no smell.

The ill repute of smell is illustrated by the decline of olfaction in clinical medicine. Once upon a time the smell of pestilence was diagnostic and the physician's olfactory sensitivity an important stimulus to prescriptions for individual and public health. Nowadays, physicians do not talk about their nose, except in regard to their wine collections. Olfactory diagnosis is a lost art. However, aromatherapy has become a popular form of alternative medicine, and marketing scents remains a lucrative part of the cosmetic and personal hygiene industry. Aromatic cinema remains an active pipe dream.


It is prudent to remember that burning things to make smoke and scent has a history and symbolism that elevates the act of making smoke beyond the ordinary or commonplace. Making smoke and scent is a public, visible act: propitiation, prayer, purification. Aromatic herbs and their use as fumigant and medicament were readily incorporated into religious and historical mythology. The gods may be invisible, but one can tell the presence of spiritual awareness and prayer by smoke and by smell. Aromatic smoke has been used to signal purification and consecration of places and people: communion with deity, sacrifice, and salvation. The magical, sacred nature of smoke and scent has been respected for time out of mind. Yahweh's instructions to Moses in the Book of Exodus are filled with fire, burnt offerings, and incense.

And thou shalt receive them from their hands, and burn them upon the altar for a burnt offering, for a sweet savour before the Lord; it is an offering made by fire unto the Lord (Exodus 29:25).

And thou shalt make an alter to burn incense upon: of acacia wood shalt thou make it (Exodus 30:1).

Burning incense in Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist traditions symbolizes the presence of deity and the dispersal of prayers. In Christian ritual, smoke from censers traditionally symbolized prayers ascending to heaven. Burning aromatic plants, or smoke and scent making, because of the power symbolized, has been the property of gods and spirits and has been carefully regulated and used. The campfire and the incensed altar, the products of controlled combustion, draw humankind together and communicate with the unseen spirits of deity, ancestors, and nature.


The history of tobacco illustrates the changing fortunes of olfaction. A history of the introduction of tobacco into Europe begins thus:
Tobacco first found its way into Europe rather as a medicament than as the solace and companion of fallen male nature.

His sentence crystallizes the history of tobacco, emphasizing tobacco's association with sin and masculine behaviour. The dried leaves of 2 species of Nicotiana, N. tabacum and N. rustica, were widely used in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Like coltsfoot (T. farfara) and hemp, Nicotiana contains psychoactive chemicals and, by empiric experience, was early on used for medicinal and self-indulgent purposes.

In the New World, Columbus and his men were quickly introduced to the indigenous practice of “drinking smoke.” Shortly after his first landfall, Columbus sent two men to reconnoitre. The description of their findings in his journal has only this sentence about tobacco:

By the way they met many people who always carried a lighted fire brand to light fire, and perfume themselves with certain herbs they carried along with them.

Bartolomeo de Las Casas, the early chronicler of the European intrusion upon the New World, a missionary, and the keeper of portions of Columbus' journal, expanded upon this description in 1527.

These two Christians found on the way... many people, the men with a half burned wood in their hands and certain herbs in order to take their smokes, which are some dry herbs put in a certain leaf, also dry, in the manner of a musket made of paper, like those the boys make on the day of the Passover of the Holy Ghost, and having lighted one part of it, by the other they suck, absorb or receive that smoke inside with the breath, by which they become benumbed and almost drunk, and so it is said that they do not feel fatigue. These muskets, as we will call them, they call tobacco

The arrival of tobacco in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia was rapidly followed by the production of instruments for its use: water pipes, clay pipes, and carved wooden pipes were adapted from the prototypes used for smoking hemp and other herbs. The growth of the tobacco-implement industry demonstrates the popularity of the habit-forming weed and the desire to smoke often and well. As European exploration expanded, other methods for consuming tobacco were found. Chewing and snuffing were common, but the most obvious tobacco instrument was the pipe. Jacques Cartier, during his second voyage to North America in 1535 to 1536, described the use of tube pipes.

There groweth also a certain kind of Herb, whereof in Summer they make great provision for all the year, and only men use it, and first they cause it to be dried in the Sun, then wear it about their neck wrapped in a little bag, with a hollow piece of stone or wood like a pipe, then when they please they make powder of it, and then put it into one of the ends of the said cornet or pipe, and laying a coal of fire upon it, at the other end suck so long, that they fill their bodies full of smoke, till it comes out of their mouth and nostrils. They say that this does keep them warm and in health; they never go without some of it about them.

Native American pipes date to more than 3000 years ago, and evidence of nicotine residues from such relics can be dated to about 1500 years ago. All of the Amerindian tribes smoked tobacco, but only some grew it. Among the Plains Indians of the upper Missouri River region, the Blackfoot, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara cultivated tobacco. Other tribes such as the Arapaho, Gros Ventre, Assiniboine, Cree, and Comanche traded for their tobacco with other tribes. Among the Plains Indian tribes, tobacco use was restricted, reserved for communal ceremonies and solemn occasions. Pipes were the devices used; the “muskets” or cigars described by the Columbus expedition were not used. Usually only adult men were allowed to smoke, although Blackfoot and Cree women used small pipes. Young people were warned that smoking would make them poor runners. Some of the Plains Indian groups allowed tobacco smoking only by individuals with special qualifications: older women herbalists and designated senior men. Pipes were assembled, filled with tobacco, ignited, and passed according to distinct tribal rules. Smoking was a religious, ceremonial event among North American Indians to be given proper respect. Shoshone and Blackfoot elders would not smoke with moccasins on. A Blackfoot host passed the pipe to his left. Each recipient would take several puffs and pass the pipe to his left. When the end of the line was reached, the pipe would be returned to the host, and the sequence restarted.

Pipes and their use were highly charged symbols. Only certain people could make a pipe and endow it with power. Only selected people could assemble and smoke these pipes. “The rosecoloured stone known as catlinite or pipestone comes from a quarry in Minnesota and was looked upon as symbolic of living flesh and blood and so sacred. All pipes made of this stone were fit for offering smoke to the gods and for cementing friendships”.

Tobacco burst upon Europe at the turn of the 16th century as a miraculous plant sharing with cinchona bark (quinine) a glorious reputation as a medicinal panacea. By 1560 tobacco was being grown in European physic gardens. English colonists from the failed Virginia settlement began commercial cultivation of tobacco in 1586. Sir Walter Raleigh, the proponent of English colonial enterprise, grew his own tobacco on his Irish estate.

During the first quarter of the 17th century, tobacco had become a sought-after commodity. Therapeutic and prophylactic claims contributed to the popularity and the demand for tobacco in Europe. In his 1646 book, De Peste Libri Quator, prominent Dutch physician Isbrand van Diemerbroeck asserted that tobacco smoke prevented the plague. Tobacco smoke insufflated into the rectum, the stomach, and the lungs was recommended as part of the resuscitation of the victims of drowning and asphyxiation. Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626) wrote in his book of natural history, Sylva Sylvarum:

Tobacco is a thing of great price, if it be in request. For an acre of it will be worth, (as is affirmed,) two hundred pounds, by the year, towards charge. The charge of making the ground, and otherwise, is great, but nothing to the profit.

By the 17th century tobacco in all its various forms had been widely used throughout Europe and Asia. Fomented by claims of medicinal magic and fostered by the addictive properties of its constituents, tobacco became the object of fashion and commercial exploitation. Nonmedicinal, self-indulgent, pleasureseeking tobacco use flourished. Bacon recognized the addictive properties of smoking tobacco:

Tobacco comforteth the spirits and dischargeth weariness; which it worketh, partly by opening, but chiefly by the opiate vertue, which condenseth the spirits.

The provision of tobacco as a privilege and pacifier for soldiers and sailors and noncombatant victims during the 30 Years War (1618–1648) was an early demonstration of the relationship between war and tobacco consumption that has continued to the present.

Smoking BanCommon sense and experience had shown that the prophylactic and therapeutic claims for tobacco were spurious, inaccurate at best. Antitobacco sentiment, submerged during the excitement of 16th century exploration and experimentation with the bounty of the New World, erupted with criticism and taxation. During the 17th century tobacco smoke was transformed from “good air” into “bad air.” The transformation began with early criticisms of its toxicity and irritant properties. King James I of England wrote his famous “counterblast to tobacco” in 1604 in which he pointed out the fallacies in the claims for tobacco as a panacea and observed that tobacco smoke stank!

A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.

A 1637 pamphlet supported the use of tobacco preparations as medicine but was titled “A brief and accurate treatise concerning the taking of the fume of tobacco, which very many, in these days do too licentiously use”.

Antagonism to tobacco and tobacco smoking was an integral component of the sanitary reform agenda of the 19th century. The rumour that smoking tobacco caused impotence and sterility circulated. In the USA the Anti-Tobacco League warned that smoking tobacco caused sterility and was practiced only by “fallen women.” “Lady nicotine” is not a lady, but “a little white devil” made from “the demon plant” wrote the Reverend George Trask, founder of the Anti-Tobacco League in Massachusetts, which succeeded in having public smoking banned in Boston in the 1850s. By mid-century tobacco was relegated to the profane and ugly. Radical authors and artists smoked cigarettes. Prostitutes and labourers smoked cigarettes. Bizet's most famous heroine was a cigarette girl, and her public smoking in operatic performance was shockingly titillating.

Antitobacco policies suffered with the arrival of the cigarette machine. Hand-operated in the 1850s, American invention mechanized and industrialized cigarette manufacture in the 1880s. Cigarettes became a popular rage and an enormous profitmaking industry. Cigarettes were the soldiers' friend during the terrible wars of the 20th century. Military strategy and government policy ensured widespread availability of cigarettes to the troops and even to the hospitals where the wounded and disabled were rehabilitated. Richard Klein describes the symbolism and the importance of tobacco smoking for the military in his book, Cigarettes Are Sublime:

The munificent cloud of smoke draws a ring around the battlehardened comrades and circles them in its embrace, drawing them closer together. What would a soldier be without tobacco? He would be totally alone with his melancholy and mourning. The smoke of cigarettes holds the ghosts at bay — or rather, Indian-like, brings the departed spirits into the diminished circle of the living, joins the past to the present, and creates the beneficent illusion of an eternal present with no loss. A fleeting antidote to depression, cigarettes are the greatest treasure to the bereft.

But cigarettes also stimulate and sharpen the mind, promoting action. In war novels, they are frequently lit by officers at the moment they have to fix a plan or give an order. It is almost a requirement of command that decisions be taken only after a moment of self-concentration, the sign of reflective detachment and considered restraint before committing men's lives.

Amerindian smoking pipe - painting on canvas

Amerindians considered tobacco a god. It has taken a century to return tobacco use to a publicly condemned habit. At the end of the 20th century, legislators passed laws banning public cigarette smoking on grounds where centuries before Indians gathered to meet and to smoke tobacco because smoking was essential to the ritual that unified the individual with the tribe and with its guardian myths and gods. In the last quarter of the 20th century, tobacco was made into an evil, unhealthful weed.

Making smoke became increasingly regulated and in many public places prohibited. What we have in the 21st century — namely, very strict tobacco taboo — is not very much different from the social use of tobacco that existed before the commercialization and mass production of cigarettes.

Nowadays, instead of sterility and sin, tobacco is linked to cancer, chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease, and to the novel ailment called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Abhorrence of even the faintest whiff of tobacco, smoke, and other odours epitomizes the contemporary opposition to smoking tobacco. In some recent studies >90% of patients claiming MCS were intolerant of tobacco smoke. In fact, MCS patients asserted that virtually all odours precipitated symptoms. They are people who would obliterate all forms of making smoke and scent. Even a nonaddicting, nicotine-free smoking device would be anathema. The anxiety of the aromaphobe is magnified by smell — any odour. The victims of aromaphobia are sent into paroxysms of suffering from all odours — from fine perfumes to sewer stench. The paroxysms are as much terror and the biologic consequences of acute stress as they are the biology of allergy or inflammation.

Because odour is such a potent biologic signal, precipitating behaviour that ranges from flight and fright to flights of erotic fantasy and romantic fervour, it is difficult to separate the odorant from the injurious, intoxicant properties of the source. Are the symptoms claimed the result of neuropsychiatric reflexes triggered by odour or the direct molecular effect of the aromatic chemical? Rousseau observed that the olfactory sense is the “sense of imagination.” Only a few molecules or whiffs of an odorant can set in motion fantasies and fears that precipitate reflex physiologic and psychological events. Passion and panic are products of smell.

The idiosyncratic smell of tobacco and tobacco smoke readily identifies tobacco users and sites of tobacco use. It is impossible to disguise tobacco. It seems to me that restricting the smoking of pipes and cigars to specially reserved places for specially designated users is symbolically and culturally desirable, not an imposition or restriction of freedom. Pipes and cigars have not yet been the focus of vociferous antitobacco persecution, perhaps because their use retains formalities and decorum that are absent from cigarette smoking. In fact, perhaps because of contemporary aromaphobia, cigars and cigar smoking have become chic, a privilege of the sophisticated connoisseur and the well-off. Magazines and boutiques market the refinements of taste and the technology of pipes and cigars. But, access is only to a special few: affluent individuals invited and initiated into the arcane knowledge of tobacco and tobacco use.

As long as these aroma-producing activities and products remain confined in special domains, controlled by adepts and not released upon an unsuspecting, susceptible public, I suspect that they will escape the wrath and reform of anxious, aromaphobic antitobacco activists. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the potency of olfactory stimuli. There is always the danger that an inadvertent whiff of aromatic tobacco smoke will trigger a disproportionately large negative reaction. Makers of smoke must be vigilant and wary. Maintenance of proper discipline and ritual diminishes the societal and biologic risks and reaffirms the symbolic importance of making smoke. Cigarette smoking is such a visible, odoriferous practice, it is not surprising that it has become the most intensively reviled form of controlled aromatic combustion.

The power of fire and smoke as symbols, stimulants, and irritants made the use of incense, fireworks, and other combustible substances the focus of ritual and strict social sanctions. If smoke contains power, only select people — initiates to smoking ritual and rules — may use and control its power, and they must use it in communal rituals. It is wasteful, disrespectful, and selfish not to share or to display smoke.

Could the intensity of the antismoking campaign have as much or more to do with controlling a powerful act as with preventing lung cancer or chronic bronchitis? One way to exert control over symbols is to transform them into sickness. Antismoking ideology labels smoking as an illness, and an illness of addiction, a sin of weakness. Indiscriminate selling and taking of smoke—sacred smoke, humankind's connection to the spiritual world—are profane. Cannabis became a policy problem when smoking “pot” emerged as a public activity. The cocaine “epidemic” followed the emergence of crack, smokable cocaine. Perhaps the abhorrence of women smoking cigarettes 100 years ago was as much a power struggle related to women's role in Western culture as it was a health issue. Children have never been allowed to smoke, except when applied by “smoke priests” for medical or ritual purposes, because they are not initiated or trained to be able to withstand and to control the powers set free in the smoke and by the act of making smoke. The recognition that tobacco smoking has serious, fatal health effects only confirms what has been known for time out of mind: smoke is potent, smoke can kill. The urge to smoke, the tantalizing sampling of forbidden power, remains unabated, perhaps even enhanced by demonstration of its social and biologic potency.


Olfaction, the sense of smell, has perplexed and pleased epistemologists since philosophy began. The cultural connections between fire and smoke and the sense of smell remain potent and pervasive. Smoke and scent are portents of sickness, sex, and spirit. Odours signal sexuality, pestilence, possession, and piety. Smells can still evoke panic.

Flower girl

The history and anthropology of smoking suggest that contemporary condemnation of tobacco, burned to make scent and smoke, has multiple origins. Cigarette smokers defy rituals and sanctity: addiction is no way to say prayers! Undisciplined, selfish smoking without ritual or communal meaning is dangerous. Addictive, uncontrolled cigarette smoking is pernicious because it is profligate and profane, as well as causing ill health. It is not surprising that social forces to control making smoke have become so powerful. On the other hand, elimination of the rites of making smoke impoverishes our sensual, symbolic, and sacred life. A world without odour would be a sterile world indeed. The rituals and rules that govern symbolic controlled combustion are ancient, perhaps a part of our biologic evolution.

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