Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

17 JULY, 2014

The Book of Trees: 800 Years of Visualizing Science, Religion, and Knowledge in Symbolic Diagrams

By:

How the humble tree became our most powerful visual metaphor for organizing information and distilling our understanding of the world.

Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship — it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.

How and why this came to be is what designer and information visualization scholar Manuel Lima explores in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (public library) — a magnificent 800-year history of the tree diagram, from Descartes to data visualization, medieval manuscripts to modern information design, and the follow-up to Lima’s excellent Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)

A remarkable tree featured as a foldout frontispiece in a later 1780 edition of the French Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, first published in 1751. The book was a bastion of the French Enlightenment and one of the largest encyclopedias produced at that time. This tree depicts the genealogical structure of knowledge, with its three prominent branches following the classification set forth by Francis Bacon in 'The Advancement of Learning' in 1605: memory and history (left), reason and philosophy (center), and imagination and poetry (right). The tree bears fruit in the form of roundels of varying sizes, representing the domains of science known to man and featured in the encyclopedia.

'Notabilia' by Mortiz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli, and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia (2011)

A visualization of the 100 longest online discussions on Wikipedia articles up for deletion, part of the collaborative editing process that defines the encyclopedia of our time. These discussions last for at least seven days, until consensus is reached on which of a series of proposed actions (such as keep, merge, rename, or delete) should be performed on a page. Starting from a common root, this visualization maps each of the 100 articles as an individual branch, with color segments and shape determined by the sequence of 'keep' (green) and 'delete' (purple) votes. The final arch of each branch indicates the voting results, bending toward either left (keep) or to the right (delete).

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250

Palm tree illustration from the 'Liber floridus (Book of flowers),' one of the oldest, most beautiful, and best-known encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Compiled between the years 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, a canon of the Church of Our Lady in Saint-Omer, the work gathers extracts from 192 different texts and manuscripts to portray a universal history or chronological record of the most significant events up to the year 1119. This mystical palm tree, also known as the 'palm of the church,' depicts a set of virtues (fronds) sprouting from a central bulb. The palm tree was a popular early Christian motif, rich in moral and symbolic associations, often used to represent the heavens or paradise.

'Plan of Organization of New York and Erie Railroad' by Daniel Craig McCallum (1855)

Diagram viewed by economists as one of the first organizational charts. The plan represents the division of administrative duties and the number and class of employees engaged in each department of the New York and Erie Railroad. Developed by the railroad's manager, the engineer Daniel Craig McCallum, and his associates, the scheme features a total of 4,715 employees distributed among its five main branches (operating divisions) and remaining boughs (passenger and freight departments). At the roots of the imposing tree, in a circular layout, are the president and the board of directors.

Lima writes in the introduction:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.

[...]

The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

'The Tree of Life' by Gustav Klimt (1901), one of the most reproduced oil paintings in human history

Among the legions of artists captivated by trees was the great Leonardo da Vinci. Shortly before his death, in one of his voluminous notebooks, Da Vinci worked out a mathematical formula for the relationship between the size of a tree’s trunk and that of its branches — he found that as a tree grows, the total cross-sectional area of all new branches is roughly equal to the area of the mother trunk or branch, no matter the height of the tree. Centuries later, scientific tests using computer-generated models of trees have not only found Leonardo’s formula to hold up across nearly every tree species, but also to explain trees’ remarkable resilience to wind and other external forces.

'Tree Branching' by Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1515)

Study of a tree branching. Leonardo's rule is fairly simple, stating that 'Every year when the boughs of a tree have made an end of maturing their growth, they will have made, when put together, a thickness equal to that of the main stem.'

Indeed, Leonardo’s formula touched on the very thing that makes the tree such a powerful metaphor for organizing knowledge — its natural function not merely as a static object, but also as a system of relational dynamics. Lima writes:

Our primordial, symbolic relationship with the tree can elucidate why its branched schema has provided not only an important iconographic motif for art and religion, but also an important metaphor for knowledge-classification systems. Throughout human history the tree structure has been used to explain almost every facet of life: from consanguinity ties to cardinal virtues, systems of laws to domains of science, biological association to database systems. It has been such a successful model for graphically displaying relationships because it pragmatically expresses the materialization of multiplicity (represented by its succession of boughs, branches, twigs, and leaves) out of unity (its central foundational trunk, which is in turn connected to a common root, source, or origin.)

Anonymous, 'Yggdrasil tree' (ca. 1680)

A depiction of the world tree or cosmic ash tree, from an Icelandic manuscript containing several illustrations from Norse mythology. Yggdrasil is drawn surrounded by various animals, which live in and on it. Of particular relevance is Ratatoskr, a green squirrel on the bottom left, who, according to Norse mythology, runs up and down Yggdrasil to carry messages between the eagle, shown at the top, and the dragon, Niohöggr, who gnaws at the roots.

Kabbalistic tree of life from 'Oedipus AEgyptiaus' (1652)

Illustration by the Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. Kabbalah is a Jewish mystical tradition; the term translates as 'received,' in reference to teachings passed through generations or directly from God. A pivotal element of the Kabbalah wisdom is the tree of life, an image composed of a diagram of ten circles, symbolizing ten pulses, or emanations, of divine energy.

'Vortices' by René Descartes, from Principia Philosophiae (1644)

A model of the universe that was widely accepted in the 17th century, based on the Cartesian system of vortices: large whirlpools of tenuous or ethereal matter that were thought to move the planets and their satellites by contact.

'Voronoi treemap' by Michael Balzer, (2005)

A pioneering alternative to conventional rectangular treemaps that relied on Voronoi tessellation to map hierarchies. In contrast to layout algorithms based on rectangular subdivisions, the Voronoi treemap layout algorithm was the first to generate flexible polygonal subdivisions, eliminating analogous shapes and aspect ratios, while also producing extremely alluring organic layouts.

I was delighted to see a longtime favorite among the selections — Stefanie Posavec’s brilliant Writing Without Words project, a hand-drawn visualization of the “literary organism” in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, depicting the sentences, words, and rhythm structures in the book.

'Writing Without Words' by Stefanie Posavec, (2008)

The Book of Trees is a treasure trove of visual literacy, symbolic history, and cultural insight. Complement it with this visual history of tree diagrams explaining evolution and these glorious drawings of trees from Indian mythology, then revisit Rachel Sussman’s gorgeous photographs of Earth’s oldest living trees.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 JUNE, 2014

Alan Watts on the Difference Between Belief and Faith

By:

How to master the delicate dance of unconditional openness to the truth.

A century and a half before Carl Sagan explored the relationship between science and religion, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, contemplated the subject in a beautiful letter. Two centuries later, Alan Lightman crafted an enchanting definition of secular spirituality. This question has also been addressed by Albert Einstein in answering a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, Flannery O’Connor in considering dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, and Jane Goodall in her exquisite conversation with Bill Moyers on science and spirituality — and yet the question is, and perhaps is bound to remain, an open one.

One of the most articulate and lucid attempts to answer it comes from Alan Watts, who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West, in his fantastic 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) — the same treasure trove of insight that gave us Watts on happiness and how to live a full life and his prescient admonition about our modern media gluttony.

Watts writes:

We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.

[…]

The present phase of human thought and history … almost compels us to face reality with open minds, and you can only know God through an open mind just as you can only see the sky through a clear window. You will not see the sky if you have covered the glass with blue paint.

But “religious” people who resist the scraping of the paint from the glass, who regard the scientific attitude with fear and mistrust, and confuse faith with clinging to certain ideas, are curiously ignorant of laws of the spiritual life which they might find in their own traditional records. A careful study of comparative religion and spiritual philosophy reveals that abandonment of belief, of any clinging to a future life for one’s own, and of any attempt to escape from finitude and mortality, is a regular and normal stage in the way of the spirit. Indeed, this is actually such a “first principle” of the spiritual life that it should have been obvious from the beginning, and it seems, after all, surprising that learned theologians should adopt anything but a cooperative attitude towards the critical philosophy of science.

The Wisdom of Insecurity is the kind of book that stays with you for life. Complement it with Watts on money vs. wealth and your ego, the universe, and becoming who you really are.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

23 JUNE, 2014

Censorship and What Freedom of Speech Really Means: Comedian Bill Hicks’s Brilliant Letter to a Priest

By:

“‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.”

In early June of 1993, several months before cancer took his life at the age of thirty-two, beloved comedian Bill Hicks received a letter from a priest, bemoaning the “blasphemous” content in Hicks’s live television special Revelations and reprimanding British broadcaster Channel 4 for having put it on the air. Writing a mere eight days before his fatal pancreatic cancer diagnosis — a young man still oblivious to his imminent tragic fate — Hicks decided to respond to the missive personally, in what became one of the most lucid and beautiful defenses of the freedom of speech ever articulated, on par with Voltaire’s piercing admonition about censorship and Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless words on the subject.

From Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library) — the same wonderful compendium by Shaun Usher that gave us young Hunter S. Thompson on how to live a meaningful life, E.B. White’s heartening response to a man who had lost faith in humanity, and Eudora Welty’s impossibly charming lesson in how to apply to your dream job — comes Hicks’s brilliant, thoughtful, and immeasurably important response.

Hicks writes:

Dear Sir,

After reading your letter expressing your concerns regarding my special ‘Revelations’, I felt duty-bound to respond to you myself in hopes of clarifying my position on the points you brought up, and perhaps enlighten you as to who I really am. Where I come from — America — there exists this wacky concept called ‘freedom of speech’, which many people feel is one of the paramount achievements in mankind’s mental development. I myself am a strong supporter of the ‘Right of freedom of speech’, as I’m sure most people would be if they truly understood the concept. ‘Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with. (Otherwise, you don’t believe in ‘freedom of speech’, but rather only those ideas which you believe to be acceptably stated.) Seeing as how there are so many different beliefs in the world, and as it would be virtually impossible for all of us to agree on any one belief, you may begin to realize just how important an idea like ‘freedom of speech’ really is. The idea basically states ‘while I don’t agree or care for what you are saying, I do support your right to say it, for herein lies true freedom.

It’s worth pausing here to note that in the DNA of the Christian Church, as an institution, is a compulsion to do precisely the opposite — to suppress the views that contradict its dogmas. One need only look to Galileo’s trails to appreciate how far back and how deeply these foundations of power-maintenance through censorship run. (But, of course, there’s always Flannery O’Connor to clarify the difference between dogmatic religion and faith.)

With his characteristic blend of snark and keen cultural insight, Hicks continues:

While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.

Hicks moves on to the part of the letter that disturbed him the most:

In support of your position of outrage, you posit the hypothetical scenario regarding the possibly ‘angry’ reaction of Muslims to material they might find similarly offensive. Here is my question to you: Are you tacitly condoning the violent terrorism of a handful of thugs to whom the idea of ‘freedom of speech’ and tolerance is perhaps as foreign as Christ’s message itself? If you are somehow implying that their intolerance to contrary beliefs is justifiable, admirable, or perhaps even preferable to one of acceptance and forgiveness, then I wonder what your true beliefs really are.

If you had watched my entire show, you would have noticed in my summation of my beliefs the fervent plea to the governments of the world to spend less money on the machinery of war, and more on feeding, clothing, and educating the poor and needy of the world … A not-so-unchristian sentiment at that!

Ultimately, the message in my material is a call for understanding rather than ignorance, peace rather than war, forgiveness rather than condemnation, and love rather than fear. While this message may have understandably been lost on your ears (due to my presentation), I assure you the thousands of people I played to in my tours of the United Kingdom got it.

Whether or not the priest himself got it, even after the letter, is another story open for speculation.

Letters of Note is a spectacular collection in its entirety, featuring opinionated, vulnerable, beautiful, blunt, and deeply human contributions from such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. Sample three of my favorites here, here, and here. Usher continues to dig up even more gems and to share them on Letters of Note, one of the most wonderful corners of the internet.

You can watch Hicks’s Revelations below. It, along with the rest of his legacy, can be found on this essential collection of his work.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.