This category contains 6 posts

Scientism and other monsters under your bed

There seem to be certain ideas that most polite intellectuals are quick to shy away from. Fundamentalist religion is one – many believe in God among their college-educated peers they are often quick to point out that they don’t believe it THAT God, the one with beard who does all the smiting. Likewise, atheism is out of the question. Sure, some might say, God is unlikely, but we can’t know, can we? They will call themselves something else – agnostics or skeptics perhaps, but certainly not the Christopher Hitchens sort of raving atheist.

Scientism seems to rank among this catalog of extremes which most thoughtful people hope to avoid.… Read the rest

Can science help us to understand art?

Over the past 50 years science has made incredible advances in understanding the workings of the human mind. With technologies such as FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) we now can actually watch brain activity in real time, which puts us well ahead of the days when psychiatrists and philosophers were limited to extrapolating theories of human motivation from observing behaviour and asking questions of participants in studies. But can such technological advances. The following article in the New York Times¬†explores the intersection of brain science and visual art.… Read the rest

urlA corner of my office is occupied, I should say graced, by a rather unusual woman. Carved seemingly from a single enormous piece of wood, stained dark, she stands a good 1.5 metres tall. Her mohawk style hairdo, beak-like nose and flat, pendulous breasts are studded with what look to be brass carpet tacks. She is a fine example of a Nimba, perhaps the most recognized form of artwork of the Baga tribe of coastal Guinea, an example of which can be seen in The Louvre (see photo).

Visitors to our house have asked me on various occasions whether or not she is authentic.… Read the rest

Where literature and history intersect

History is written by the victors, and it wasn’t terribly kind to Richard III. Thomas More vilified him in his history of the king’s reign, and Shakespeare immortalized the story in his famous play. Their politically expedient retellings of Richard’s life (both written to please Tudor monarchs) met with varying success – Shakespeare was honoured by Elizabeth I, where More managed to get himself beheaded by Henry VIII.

The arts seem a suspect source for history, and yet there are glimmers of truth to be had. Just as Schliemann uncovered the supposedly mythical city of Troy and demonstrated that the Iliad wasn’t entirely fantasy, archeologists have recently confirmed that the skeleton they have unearthed in a car park in Leicester really is that of the long-maligned Richard III, complete with his (in)famous hunchback in the form of advanced scoliosis.… Read the rest

Poetry lights up the brain

As an English teacher, I occasionally get asked by demotivated students why we should bother studying poetry. I find myself tempted to rant ineffectually about the appreciation of beauty and creativity as essential parts of what it means to be human, about the central role language decoding plays in critical thinking, and about the importance of common cultural reference points in building a sense of community and common purpose. However, there’s a simpler answer, less satisfying perhaps, but more motivating to the young. Poetry makes you less stupid.

Reading poetry – particularly challenging poetry – enhances brain activity and can have lasting cognitive effects, Julie Henry reports in The Telegraph.Read the rest

Illusion, ambiguity and truth

bison mammoth optical illusionThere’s something irresistible about optical illusions. They seem to us a sort of mental sleight of hand, as if nature has a mischievous streak and is deliberately messing about with our vision. It turns out that even some of our stone-age ancestors were thinking about the power of illusion; over at National Geographic Andrew Howley explores the phenomenon of optical illusion in cave paintings and other prehistoric art, showing that in at least one instance,pictured here, the visual ambiguity seems indisputably deliberate.

Does our fascination with ambiguity have anything to tell us about our relationship with truth? Can we find some kind of meaning in our curious interest in multiplying meanings?… Read the rest

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