People sometimes ask me if I am still a mysterian, as if perhaps the growth of neuroscience has given me pause; they fail to grasp the depth of mystery I sense in the problem. The more we know of the brain, the less it looks like a device for creating consciousness: it’s just a big collection of biological cells and a blur of electrical activity – all machine and no ghost…
I have come to think that mystery is quite pervasive, even in the hardest of sciences. Physics is a hotbed of mystery: space, time, matter and motion – none of it is free of mysterious elements.
The puzzles of quantum theory are just a symptom of this widespread lack of understanding (I discuss this in my latest book, Basic Structures of Reality). The human intellect grasps the natural world obliquely and glancingly, using mathematics to construct abstract representations of concrete phenomena, but what the ultimate nature of things really is remains obscure and hidden.
How everything fits together is particularly elusive, perhaps reflecting the disparate cognitive faculties we bring to bear on the world (the senses, introspection, mathematical description). We are far from obtaining a unified theory of all being and there is no guarantee that such a theory is accessible by finite human intelligence…
The “mysterianism” I advocate is really nothing more than the acknowledgment that human intelligence is a local, contingent, temporal, practical and expendable feature of life on earth – an incremental adaptation based on earlier forms of intelligence that no one would regard as faintly omniscient. The current state of the philosophy of mind, from my point of view, is just a reflection of one evolutionary time-slice of a particular bipedal species on a particular humid planet at this fleeting moment in cosmic history – as is everything else about the human animal. There is more ignorance in it than knowledge.
This act of wrenching away an object or concept from its habitual associative context and seeing it in a new context is, as I have tried to show, an essential part of the creative process.
It is an act both of destruction and of creation, for it demands the breaking up of a mental habit, the melting down, with the blow-lamp of Cartesian doubt, of the frozen structure of accepted theory, to enable the new fusion to take place.
This perhaps explains the strange combination of skepticism and credulity in the creative genius. Every act–in science, art, or religion–involves a regression to a more primitive level, a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted beliefs.
It is a process of reculer pour mieux sauter [to draw back in order to make a better jump] of disintegration preceding the new synthesis, comparable to the dark night of the soul through which the mystic must pass.
It is almost midnight in Mexico and the Cantina next door will play music for another three hours.
My wife is asleep, the thin sheet wrapped tightly around her body. In the morning we will visit Maya ruins.
I am reading about black holes and the way time wraps itself tightly around a mass. And when I put down the book I imagine myself speeding far away from here, so far, to regions where the speed of light has not yet reached and standing in that moment of first light and witnessing its beginning and my beginning and my wife’s and the Mayans.
I could watch the first squealing breath.
The ruins built block by block and the oceans spread out thin like butter.
Such beauty in beginnings. Why do I mourn decay? The slow entropy in time.
I find hope in things being put together.
Joy in Legos, in writing stories, in watching a good movie, the story of love.
At the ruins tomorrow we will say, such decay, and the tour guide will say, this was restored in 1997, you can imagine what it must have looked like back then.
I will hold hands with my wife and we will talk about the dead past and the hopeful, incoming light of the future.
Dr. Chandrasekhar read a paper describing the research which he has recently carried out, an account of which has already appeared in The Observatory, 1934, investigating the equilibrium of stellar configurations with degenerate cores. he takes the equation of state for degenerate matter in its exact form, that is to say, taking account of relativistic degeneracy. An important result of the work is that the life history of a star of small mass must be essentially different from that of a star of large mass. There exists a certain critical mass. if the star’s mass is greater than M the star cannot have a degenerate core, but if the star’s mass is less then M it will tend, at the end of its life history, towards a completely collapsed state…
The President: Fellows will wish to return their thanks to Dr. Chandrasekhar. I now invite Sir Arthur Eddington to speak on his paper “Relativistic Degeneracy”.
Sir Arthur Eddington: Dr. Chandrasekhar has been referring to degeneracy. There are two expressions commonly used in this connection, “ordinary” degeneracy and “relativistic” degeneracy, and perhaps I had better by explaining the difference…The star has to go on radiating and radiating and contracting and contracting until, I suppose, it gets down to a few km. radius, when gravity becomes strong enough to hold in the radiation, and the star can at last find peace. Dr. Chandrasekhar had got his result before, but has rubbed it in in his last paper; and when discussing it with him, I felt driven to the conclusion that this was almost a reductio ad absurdum of the relativistic degeneracy formula. Various accidents may intervene to save the star, but I want more protection than that. I think there should be a law of Nature to prevent a star from behaving in this absurd way!
(Royal Astronomical Society, Feb. 1935)
Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, gave a lecture titled “The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking” to a group of other geniuses in other fields, then followed by a discussion. You can click the link for the full lecture, text and video, and the fascinating discussion. This is how Kahneman begins:
The marvels and the flaws that I’ll be talking about are the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time, a little over 40 years. I wanted to show you a picture of my collaborator in this early work. What I’ll be trying to do today is to sort of bring this up-to-date. I’ll tell you a bit about the beginnings, and I’ll tell you a bit about how I think about it today.
This is Amos Tversky, with whom I did the early work on judgment and decision-making. I show this picture in part because I like it, in part because I like very much the next one. That’s what Amos Tversky looked like when the work was being done. I have always thought that this pairing of the very distinguished person, and the person who is doing the work tells you something about when good science is being done, and about who is doing good science. It’s people like that who are having a lot of fun, who are doing good science.
What I like about this glimpse of the scientist and the introduction to the essay is the sense of playing within work, and intensely intellectual work as well. The idea that such “science” is indeed fun and perhaps fulfilling speaks beyond just the passion of the individual, but in a very real sense, a spiritual approach to work. The picture on the right brings to mind the cliche of “getting into the zone” or relaxed focus on the task at hand. Good work is done within the confines of joy.
Kahneman’s lecture is fascinating in its own right as is the following discussion. But what struck me like a punch to the stomach was what he said in an answer about the differences of him and his pictured collaborator.
Kahneman: “You’re asking would Amos agree with me? He’s been dead 15 years.”
It took my breathe away. If you watch the video this quick exchange happens about the one hour and six minute mark and is uneventful. But since my first reading, I have not been able to forget this remark. I’ve since started working a fictional story around it.
I’ve explored, for the last two months, why these sentences affected me so much. As an introvert I often feel things more strongly before I can understand them consciously. So I allow my subconscious to work through the thoughts, I pray and write, and try to put it into words eventually. My story is one small attempt. This is another.
I’ve come to this conclusion (along with many others, but I’ll try to stay focused):
Even our life’s work is meaningless.
This is not pessimistic, however, for Amos’ work helped advance the discussion and the science. He was a meaningful part, but at some point everything moves on, the world, the science, the ideas.
And we are left with a man sitting on a couch in pure enjoyment of the work. That is what lasts.
Amos is not left with dusty books and forgotten ideas. He has, eternally, a joy that goes beyond this life, quite mysteriously. And maybe Solomon’s stated all this meaningless-talk before, but our work does more to us than we realize. It’s more than the finished product or project. There’s an eternal, I don’t want to say reward, but something that results from the work itself. This is when we’ve come into contact with the divine, when we’ve collaborated with the Holy Spirit. We are re-created in the act of recreation. And maybe we don’t see it at the start and maybe not even in 15 years, but at some point we will.