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Return to Campus

Returning to Bucknell to give a talk was unsettling. I haven’t been back in 25 years and I’ve kept up only with a few friends. I was unhappy during college, and I have kept the lid of memories screwed on pretty durn tight.

I got a good education there. The teachers ranged from good to life-changing. But I didn’t realize how isolated and privileged the experience was until I stepped back on campus. Has it become even more of a country club than when I was there? No way of telling. Statistically, of course, it’s more diverse. Spiritually, I don’t know.

My breakfast with Professors Fell and Sturm meant too much for me to write about. But I can give you their reading list.

Professor Fell recommends John William Miller, his own teacher. He gave me a copy of The Midworld of Symbols and Functioning Objects. I started reading it on the way back. Chapter One is gibberish to me. Chapter Two affords me at least a handhold. I will go to the site that Prof. Fell recommended, hoping that it will give me enough context to begin to understand what the book is about. (The site links to Prof. Fell’s exceptionally clear and helpful introductory essay on Miller.)

Professor Sturm recommends that I read Whitehead. I read Whitehead when I was an undergrad and maybe some more in grad school. Back then I read to conquer, to get Whitehead under my belt. (Talk about consumerism!) I read better now, but not well enough: I am still defensive, holding off ideas, maintaining my current beliefs. It’s one reason among several that I could never be a genuine scholar.

I talked with my old professors about my interest in the idea that the universe might be a computer. Within 90 seconds, the conversation clarified a point for me that should have been apparent: The universe-as-computer idea does not imply a maker the way the universe-as-clockmaker idea does because the complexity of the universal clockworks makes the Argument from Design seem plausible while the point of the universal computer is that enormous complexity results from great simplicity.

Ok, so this is a big D’oh! But isn’t so much of great teaching the revealing of the blindingly obvious?

I walked through Lewisburg two nights ago. I lived there for four years as a student and one year as a resentful day-laborer and bad writer.

Places change more slowly than we do. It doesn’t seem fair.

As I strolled, nostalgia intermittently struck, like being pelted with rocks. I say with no pride that I oddly found myself most wanting to visit places where I had been most notably stoned way back then: Tommy T’s apartment overlooking Market Street, the home goods store where I once spent too long watching skeins of yarn merging, the secluded point in the river behind the railroad tracks where we smoked freshman year when we thought we had to go a half mile into the woods to avoid detection.

I don’t know why those were the memories most present. It felt more like the effect of brain chemistry than memory. Damn embarrassing.

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3 Responses to “Return to Campus”

  1. A world of ends, no beginning and no structure

    David Weinberger’s trip to his alma mater and PC Forum bring forth the following gems: The universe-as-computer idea does not

  2. I second the Whitehead recommendation and further suggest that you (re-?)read Science and the Modern World first. I have tried Process and Reality many times (and have tried reading it with complimentary exigetical works, “keys to the text” and other, but his vocab is just too nutso for me to grasp).

    (Though now that you mention it, I think I was trying to ‘get him under my belt as well’ — I will try again in five years.)

    To me it is a shame that there aren’t systematic philosophers any more and Whitehead was the last one (excepting people like Bohm and Polanyi). There is something achingly deep in the every-piece-reflects/contains-the-whole monad-style articulation of (Whiteheadian) ‘organisms’, even in SATMW.

    For some reason my respect to Whitehead and my intuition about what-there-is-to-get there far outstrips my comprehension of his work. But I’ve found few things better for getting into the mode of deep appreciation for the wonder of it all.

  3. The universe-as-computer idea does not imply a maker the way the universe-as-clockmaker idea does because … the point of the universal computer is that enormous complexity results from great simplicity.

    What notion of a computer are you intending with the universe-as-computer idea? A stand-alone PC analogy results in quite a different conception of the universe compared to using a computer network or mainframe as analogies. To my mind a stand-alone PC can not be differentiated from a clockwork mechanism in this context. The key difference with the network is that you no longer have just one operator (the ‘maker’) but many, and thus the universe-as-computer arises primarily out of relationships/connections rather than mechanisms.

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