My Intellectual Scene

April 22, 2006

About half a year ago I, somehow, found out about a conversation that was being held at the Natural Science building on the UC Berkeley campus about the Simpsons and mathematics. At the time I believe I was taking some mundane Beginning Painting course and a Philosophy course at Laney Community College, just to hold me over during the summer till the fall semester started. Also at the time, I was reading books about color theory, the psychology and neurobiology of vision, as well as mathematical history books. As an used-to-be avid fan of the Simpsons and a now avid fan of mathematics I thought the conversation might be interesting to attend. It was mostly about how the writers of the Simpsons, some who hold some advanced mathematics degrees, were injecting math into every-day tv humor; particularly on the Simpsons, but most evidently on another Matt Groening show, Futurama. It was sponsored by MSRI, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute. … I probably wrote about it on this site somewhere. Around here is also when I bought myself a subscription to the new intellectually engaging cultural magazine N+1. It's a somewhat more uplifting, good hearted, version of McSweeny's, or the New Republic. But it's twice as thick (literally and in cogent substance), three times as artistic, and way less prosaic than everything else I've read in news. 

 Anyways, a few months later, MSRI was holding another conversation. This time with a pianist who discussed the relationships between the Etudes of Ligeti (and other peices) and mathematics. Again, I probably wrote something about this on here too. But this conversation wasn't very substantive and to be honest, the music was damn dissonant. I was really looking forward to the conversation MSRI was going to host with Philip Glass and Godfrey Reggio. I was bided my time for several months. And then, I found out it was going to be held during a time which Glass and Reggio were having a 3-day showing of their Qatsi trilogy played with live orchestral music. So obviously I got a "Glass Pass" for that. 

For awhile, I hadn't seen anything else until I was given a few notices of extra credit from my current teachers. For anthropology, I was told there were going to be a series of lectures relating to anthropology. I went the most enticing one of them all, the biology of individuality given by Robert Sapolsky. It was amazingly enlightening and the examples were potent with poetic intrigue. Then in my English class I was assigned to do a paper on some "movement." My first inclination was the Intellectual Scene. Where has the intellectual gone (as Frank Furedi writes), has the intellectual changed. I jumped onto the conclusion that the "neo-Intellectual" of the 21st century is not the traditional philosophical intellectual of yesteryear, but rather the polymath scientists who blend neurobiology with behavioral sciences, psychology and mathematics with art, philosophy with economics. My foundation was based in the Edge Foundation which the founder, John Brockman, considers to be the "Third Culture" (in reference to C. P. Snow's lecture "The Two Cultures" which originially split intellectualism into the sciences and the humanities). I immediately began my research… which means I perversely checked out books from public and university libraries and what I couldn't find there, I bought. I began from the beginning of the 20th century with: Julien Benda's "The Treason of the Intellectual." The basic premise there is two-fold, "clerks" (his form of an intellectual as one "who speaks to the world in a trascendant manner.") became politically passionate (bias), and secular/relativistic (anti-universalism and/or anti-Enlightenment). I burned through that book and with the potency of marginality present in it.. I'm keeping it too. Then I started Anti-Intellectualism in America. 

I think it was here that my English teacher informed me of the Defend Science movement. Now, here's an organization I can support.. and I did when I decided to donate money so they can publish their statement in national newspapers. I even volunteered (although.. I'm a little disappointed in the disorganized Berkeley chapter so far). Anyways, I attended the forum and discussion and after the audience was done with their self-righteous interpretations of the situation with long laborious questions which don't really have any answers, I was able to get the last question of the night: "Very succinctly, what sacrifices are we going to have to make, as scientists, in this movement to defend science?" And it was validating to hear another audience member shout "Good question!" I felt, even though this movement seems to be in it's beginning stages… which means everyone is of the mentality of grouping together to assess power and amass power for this movement, I felt it is neccessary to understand that this will require loss. In a movement to defend the scientist, who is one of mankinds greatest bastions of intellect, we must recognize that we might have to sacrifice the progress of science itself in order to battle against our non-falsifiable enemy, fundamentalism and the irrationalists of non-secularism. As one audience member said, "How can we win this? I mean they have GOD on their side."

Later, after turning in my Primate Observation Report for anthropology, my anthro teacher informed me about a lecture being given about the biology of vision by Margaret Livingston, whose book was one of the many I had read previously above: Vision and Art: Biology of Seeing. I just got back from that lecture today, and I was glad I went. I was able to walk up to her personally and ask her about a recent study I read which suggested that color played a role in motion perception (which was contrary to the research she educated us in during the lecture). Turns out, it might have been her arch nemesis in the world of vision neurobiology.

Anyways, I've only noticed a strong discrepency between what I've been reading about the state of intellectualism and what I've been experiencing. While it may be true that there are strongly pervasive anti-intellectual mentalies present in the minds of many Western citizens, there is still a very strong intellectual community which continues to thrive. There are more art museums and exhibitions than ever before, more lectures open to the public about science and politics than ever before and forums such as the Commonwealth Club are still powerful and influencial in framing the debates and expanding the minds of their intellectual members. Furthermore, there are more books and articles about political, economic, and cultural issues than ever before. However, on the other side of the coin… multimedia entertainment venues are also much more powerful than decades previously.

Nonetheless, for a person such as myself, a simpleton transforming himself into "one who speaks to the world in a transcendant manner", there is still enough intellectual food to give nourishment to my mind. You just have to get off your ass, stop worrying about how smart or dumb you are, and just delve in head first. 

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