Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mind or Stomach? Imagination or Necessity?

"An army marches on its stomach" said Napoleon, who is also credited with saying "Imagination rules the world". Is history driven by raw necessity and elementary needs? Or is history hewn by people from their imagination, dreams and ideas?

The answer is simple: 'Both'. The challenge is to untangle imagination from necessity. Consider these examples:

An ancient Jewish saying is "Without flour, there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no flour." (Avot 3:17) Scholars don't eat much, but they do need to eat. And if you feed them, they produce wonders.

Give a typewriter to a monkey and he might eventually tap out Shakespeare's sonnets, but it's not very likely. Give that monkey an inventive mind and he will produce poetry, a vaccine against polio, and the atom bomb. Why the bomb? He needed it.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, but it's actually a two-way street. For instance, human inventiveness includes dreams of cosmic domination, leading to war. Hence the need for that bomb. Satisfying a need, like the need for flour, induces inventiveness. And this inventiveness, like the discovery of genetically modified organisms, creates new needs. Necessity induces inventiveness, and inventiveness creates new dangers, challenges and needs. This cycle is endless because the realm of imagination is boundless, far greater than prosaic reality, as we discussed elsewhere.

Imagination and necessity are intertwined, but still are quite different. Necessity focusses primarily on what we know, while imagination focusses on the unknown.

We know from experience that we need food, shelter, warmth, love, and so on. These requirements force themselves on our awareness. Even the need for protection against surprise is known, though the surprise is not.

Imagination operates in the realm of the unknown. We seek the new, the interesting, or the frightful. Imagination feeds our fears of the unknown and nurtures our hopes for the unimaginable. We explore the bounds of the possible and try breaking through to the impossible.

Mind or stomach? Imagination or necessity? Every 'known' has an 'unknown' lurking behind it, and every 'unknown' may some day be discovered or dreamed into existence. Every mind has a stomach, and a stomach with no mind is not human.


  1. We try to realize our dreams and if not, we must realize our mistakes and try again. Prophecy cannot be self-fulfilling if there is the slightest hint that that is what it is (therefore prophets must not be loved in their own country). Our duality of origin (Bergson 1932 p79) allows us to reflect the other and the others' Other and so on ad infinitum, but we must never cross that sacred line where independent confirmation turns into dependent confirmation, independent rejection or even dependent rejection. So even when we don't know what will hit us, we know how and why, if we don't care.

  2. Some political scientists and historians have identified three forces thst move polities: Interests, ideas, passions. Because complexity science is young, useful quantification of these forces and their interaction appears not to have been achieved so far and may be unachievable. Nevertheless, at least two thinkers have predicted the demise of the Soviet Union decades before it occurred. George F. Kennan, who was steeped in Russian history and saw first hand the realities of Soviet society, is well known. His "Long Telegram" guided containment policy from Truman to Bush I. But two decades earlier, after a brief stay in Moscow, where he had worked at the Marx-Engels Institute on the mathematical works of the two "founding fathers," the German extreme value statistician and left-wing activist Emil Gumbel wrote that the Soviet system's structural flaws were destroying its long-term viability.

    Where will the Arab Spring lead?

  3. Leftist (practically communist) Playwright Bertold Brecht says (in the "Dreigroschenoper" (three penny opera) somewhere,

    "Erst kommt das Essen, dann kommt das Moral" (first comes eating, then come the morals).

    In Greek, there is the folk saying "A hungry bear does not dance", which is a reference not to the USSR but to poor creatures that were driven around, typically by Gypsies, from village to village in rural areas about a century or so ago, and made to dance (probably to some music).

    There is also the saying (in reference to Ron's comment), "No prophet in his own country", a very true statement, but I don't know its origin, could be biblical or by some ancient Greek or even Roman.

    Arguably, the failed Former Soviet Union failed in both ("Essen" and "Moral", miserably, but you would not know it listening to the ludicrous estimates and predictions the CIA and other agencies made, with a straight face, testifying in the US Congress and in their official publications.

    Very few Economists (a notable one, whose name I forget, died last year) were able to see through the avalanche of ludicrous overestimates and understand that in the Entire Soviet Union of 300,000,000 people, there must have been a ridiculously tiny 3,000 swimming pools in residences of the Nomenclatura and other favored citizens..

    The same nonsensical estimates were given for poor Eastern Block countries. A famous one was the statement by some clueless CIA types in Congress, that allegedly, Eastern Germany had a... higher standard of living than ... Western Germany, when every taxi driver in Berlin knew that this was utter nonsense!

    It is telling that the left-leaning NY Times did not mention this excellent economist even in an obituary, and I had to read his fascinating bio in the more moderate Washington Post.

  4. PS Yakov, it makes perfect sense that scholars don't eat much, even if they are not voluntarily self-starving Indian Gurus!

    That's because a full-time scholar does not actually NEED to eat much, due to his sedentary, low-calorie-burning lifestyle.

    On the contrary, a fully employed construction worker needs about 6,000 calories a day, twice as much as the average adult male, and probably two and a half times as much as a sedentary scholar needs to work (unless he is a philosopher of the... "Peripatetic School"!!!)

    If you force a sedentary scholar to consume the above 6,000 calories a day, morbid obesity and an early death are almost guaranteed!

  5. Referring to "There is no prophet in his own town": It is from the New Testament - Gospel of Matthew 13:57, explaining why Jesus did not perform any miracles in Nazareth.

  6. Hello Miriam, thank you for posting that exact reference. When the NT takes its wisdom from the OT so clearly and meaningfully, it is something to pay extra attention to. PS cannot read your blog or have it translated, but it is satisficing nonetheless. Hello to that fellow in there!

  7. Thanks, Miriam! Very good, I am impressed. You do know your Scriptures!

    I find that saying very true BTW, in all kinds of modern situations, one example is University Inbreeding, there is a reason most serious Universities don't hire their own PhD grads, but prefer to hire somebody from a totally different place to get their new ideas (or prophesies)

  8. "Referring to "There is no prophet in his own town": It is from the New Testament - Gospel of Matthew 13:57, explaining why Jesus did not perform any miracles in Nazareth. "

    After more carefully reading this, I was reminded of a classic "Saturday Night Live" episode where the catholic priest "Father Guido Sarducci", played by the excellent Frank Novello, was complaining about the lack of qualifications of some recently declared, non-Italian, Catholic Saints (from the US and other important places, to satisfy the local communities apparently).

    The good Father explained that, to be declared a saint, you need to perform at least three miracles, but the Vatican succumbed, thirty years before the age of grade inflation and social promotion, in declaring saints from.. New Jersey or some other state, who had not three, but two or even one miracle, and, he added, some of these miracles were just "Card Tricks"!!!

  9. Well, out of curiosity I googled that passage in Matthew and it seems there are many different english translations, for example:

    New International Version (©1984)
    And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor."

    New Living Translation (©2007)
    And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him. Then Jesus told them, "A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family."

    English Standard Version (©2001)
    And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.”

    New American Standard Bible (©1995)
    And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household."

    King James Bible (Cambridge Ed.)
    And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.

    Therefore, and since the original was actually in Greek, a far easier Ancient Greek than classical and Homeric Greek, and similar to modern Greek, I googled that too:

    "Οὐκ ἔστιν προφήτης ἄτιμος εἰ μὴ ἐν τῇ πατρίδι καὶ ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ"

    Which clearly says "There is no prophet without honor except in his own country and his own house".