I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb
Richard Feynman, American nobel-prize physicist
Click here if you want to know how “dumb” he was
Impresses me as a better alternative than “I’m too smart to be wrong.”
Richard Feynman, American nobel-prize physicist
Click here if you want to know how “dumb” he was
Impresses me as a better alternative than “I’m too smart to be wrong.”
In yesterday’s post I described some recent research suggesting the possibility that religion might paradoxically result in our being not more but less generous towards those less fortunate than we.
Following on from that somewhat surprising outcome, I wonder if children who are raised without being taught any particular religious ideology might actually be naturally more altruistic.
One of the surprising findings in science in the last 50 years or so is the extent of altruism that seems apparent in other species. We’ve seen examples of dolphins saving humans from attack by killer sharks, for instance, a lion protecting a baby rhino, a bear sharing his dish of food with a hungry cat that entered its cage in the zoo. There are thousands of examples. If you have a pet dog or cat or bird, you may yourself have benefited from this kind of altruism.
Where does this altruism come from? In non-humans, it obviously does not originate in religious belief. Some theories argue that all species, individuals will sacrifice their own lives in order to protect those who share our genes. It is, they say, basically a selfish response, in that I am really trying to maintain my own genes in the lives of future generations. But this theory breaks down when we are dealing with altruism toward those who do not share our genes, who are not even of the same species.
Is altruism, then, a result of evolution in all living creatures? Do we all have the potential to care about other life, not simply our own or those closest to us?
If so, might we then find greater altruism among those who are taught to understand and care about all life – without the additions of threats and rewards?
Religions typically exhort us to love others in order to gain an eternal reward and avoid eternal punishment. But if altruism is a natural response, then it is diminished by suggesting that caring about all other life is not intrinsically fulfilling in itself, as if we need to be bribed to love others.
We don’t need to bribe our children to enjoy playing with their train sets or i-pads, their toy dolls or pet animals. We don’t need to bribe them to do any of the million things they enjoy.
Why do we assume that caring about the life around us isn’t something we do naturally?
Actually, we probably often do that because, although we are capable of selfless love, we are also capable of incredible cruelty, of sadism, or even taking enjoyment in making others suffer.
But since religion does not seem to eliminate those negative impulses, and often even seems to encourage and justify them, perhaps we should explore whether religion actually does more harm than good.
Could we survive without religion? could we survive without the certainty religious belief offers so many?
As I look around the world today, I don’t see the answer. I don’t know if or when religion make things better or worse. Religion does not do a lot for me these days. I prefer to live in the mystery of a universe which constantly astonishes, exults and sometimes frightens me but which I know ultimately is beyond complete human understanding. Yet I know people who are more generous and courageous than I have ever been who are deeply religious.
I don’t know. I would be interested to know what you think.
I was reading a blog post recently exploring the question of whether people who discourse extensively on questions of morality are necessarily more moral when it comes to practice rather than merely preaching or teaching. This would be a difficult question to explore in terms of solid scientific research: are men and women the same? are there cultural or religious differences? does age have an influence? what, specifically, would one measure, especially in terms of practice?
Nonetheless, the post did remind me of something which I know from personal experience: the clothes I am wearing can effect not only what other people think of me, but possibly more significantly, what I think about myself.
I was a nun for nine years, most of which time I wore a full habit from head to toe. I would have said that it represented my commitment to a life of love and service. When I left the convent, however, and was negotiating New York City dressed like everybody else, I noticed two things. People weren’t always as considerate as I had thought they were when I walked the same streets wearing a habit. That might not be too surprising.
But what I also discovered was that I wasn’t nearly as morally superior as I had thought I was when I was wearing a habit. I began to see that apparently quite ordinary people were often un-ostentatiously living lives of huge generosity and love and sacrifice. I hadn’t seen that so clearly when I had thought that I was the one who had chosen to live a life of superior virtue. I suspect religious garments can be a particularly powerful influence on this kind of self-perception. Or self-deception.
The appearances we choose for ourselves have deep evolutionary roots. The appearance of animals and even plants has profound survival purpose. It might say “look at me, I’m sexually very attractive.” “Or look at me, I’m very strong,” or “very dangerous,” or “very cute and cuddly.” For us humans, the clothes and ornaments with which we adorn ourselves can send these and many other messages about social status and how one expects, or wishes, to be treated.
As I say, I don’t know in every case how far it is that “the clothes maketh the man.” I know even less whether preaching might fool the preacher him/herself.
But now that I’ve written this post on morality, perhaps I’ve earned a pre-dinner gin & tonic? I’ll dress for it, of course.
I’ve never been particularly taken with Gothic monsters like Frankenstein or vampires like Dracula, nor did I understand why mature men and women wrote or enjoyed reading these kind of fantastical stories.
But I’m beginning to understand. The Gothic revival that produced these Gothic fantasies emerged during the Industrial Revolution when it was glaringly apparent that the old ways were disappearing. People were moving off the farms and into often wretched hovels in the city to work in factories in which lives were at risk, hours long and for which there were few safeguards. If your arm was cut off in a spinning wheel, or your legs smashed in a mining accident, there was no recompense. There wasn’t even anything resembling disability payments or unemployment compensation.
Technology and science were drastically changing the world, and for huge numbers, it seemed to be producing a machine that was grinding inexorably to destroy human society as we know it.
And that’s what Dracula was – a metaphor of an economic system run amok, draining the life blood of the very people who fed it. That is what Frankenstein was – a terrible invention of science stalking the lives of ordinary people without consideration of any kind.
The interesting thing is that these Gothic monsters still stalk us. In metaphorical terms they appear, most blatantly, in science fiction novels and movies. They are terrible creatures of evil from another universe totally without kindness, seeking only power.
What are these modern Gothic monsters really for those of us living in the 21st century?
For some it is climate change and the destruction of our home planet Earth. For some it is capitalism, or immigration, terrorism, or the horrifying tools of modern militaries. For some it is materialism, or sexual liberation, or the unstoppable spread of a deadly virus sweeping around the globe. For some it is an Apocalypse sent forth by an angry God.
Perhaps our Gothic metaphors are a way of trying to deal with these very real fears. Perhaps they are a way of disguising them to ourselves, or ways of convincing ourselves that our fears, like the metaphors, are fantastical.
However we deal with them, I now see that they arise from deep within the human psyche. And I can see why they grow so strong in times of turmoil and uncertainty.
I have often been mystified by some of the world’s greatest scientists who believe that the world of numbers has a real existence. It’s a kind of modern version of Plato’s world of perfect forms, which exist in what most of us think of as “the real world” only in degraded form corrupted by matter. As a cognitive psychologist, I have been pondering for years how a modern thinker in the world today could reach a conclusion that to me sounds so preposterous.
I don’t have the answer, of course, but I’ve been also thinking about a similar problem of my own, and I do have an idea. My personal version of the numbers problem is with music. When I listen to some of my favourite classical or folk musicians, I often seem to go into another world, to experience a different reality, to become convinced of things that are mere ideas in my every day state in which I generally view the world using scientific principles. I listen to music, for instance, and the conviction that the mere act of existence is valuable, becomes overwhelming. Faithfulness to existence seems to me to be the greatest good. In everyday life, that more or less takes the form of respect, of kindness, of love for everyone and everything. It’s a principle I can more or less defend intellectually using scientific principles, but it is one empowered with profound emotion and a certainty comparable to what some people seem to experience in relation to their religious beliefs. I don’t have any convincing scientific proof. And yet I feel I know it through direct experience.
Can this certainty nevertheless be wrong? absolutely yes. Just as scientific conclusions can also be wrong: time and space are not unchanging absolutes as Newton thought they were. Just as our sensory experiences can be wrong: I might mistake a stick for a rifle, a bird for superman, the roar of an overhead plane for thunder. Just as our memories can be wrong: almost everyone has asked if some “memory” actually happened or was only a dream; conversely many of us have a seemingly clear memory of something that could not possibly have happened.
My insights gained through music might be equally erroneous or incomplete. They could be catastrophically wrong. I might, for instance conclude that God is commanding me to behead anyone who disagrees with my religious beliefs. Just as the conclusions of those geniuses who describe the world in terms of numbers may be wrong, or at least incomplete.
My hypothesis is that we are each like those blind men in the Indian story standing around an elephant. They each experience a different aspect of the elephant, and are convinced by their own experience that they are right. The challenge is to recognize that what we see is incomplete. So that even people who fundamentally disagree with us might be right too.
I don’t think there are separate words we call heaven or hell. I don’t think the world of music or numbers or science or the arts have a separate existence from the “real world” we live in either. But they are different perspectives, each of which tells us something different about the elephant around which we blind men are standing.
So I’m going to stop thinking that the “insights” I gain through listening to music, or that other people gain through the arts, or by walking in the mountains, or even through meditation, are somehow inferior to the conclusions I can buttress with scientific data. Those insights derived from non-scientific sources deserve to be taken seriously. I don’t think they are infallible, at least in terms that any individual human being can express them. But they are valuable.
Okay, I’ll stop. Just let me say that I do appreciate that Einstein said that if an idea is not at first absurd, there is no hope for it. He didn’t say that all absurd ideas were brilliant.
Despite my silence, I have been giving some hard thought to just what it is that makes us all equal, and what inalienable rights and responsibilities flow from that fundamental equality. I said in my last post that this equality obviously cannot be defined in monetary terms. And of course it can’t.
But on further thought, it doesn’t seem that simple. Almost the world over, we need money to meet some of our most basic needs – food, shelter, clothing. Without a financial base, we cannot get an education, hope to do many of the jobs that are essential to a functioning society, even to raise a family.
Seeing this, many people concerned with fairness and justice support the concept of a minimum wage – the belief that people should, by law, be paid enough for the work they do to live responsibly in dignity, to develop their individuality and skills, and to contribute to the common good sufficiently to help care for those who cannot work at a paying job.
So far so good. In theory this should allow us to use our talents to contribute to the diversity that is so essential to the human community. So we will ultimately be quite different in our contributions, our levels of education, our social and financial status, our popularity, our physical abilities.
But we’re human beings. We often try to game the system. Or turn it around in a complete reversal of values. So on the one hand, there are those who will try to get social and financial support without working, even when they can. Or we somehow conclude not that we pretty much all need some basic financial base in order to develop and flourish, but that if we have more money we must, by that fact, be more important, more valuable, even more virtuous than those who don’t.
Today, for instance, we have the far right who think that social security or health care should be earned, and if you don’t earn it, that’s your lazy fault and you should get along without it.
And we have those on the far left who will strike for unconscionable wages, whatever it costs the community. Similarly, there are many who think that no other criteria should be required except that one has at least one child, and that the more children one has, the more funding should be given, no questions asked.
I can’t buy either of these conclusions. I think the far right are wrong in failing to appreciate how much we each need to be given what we have not earned. We need to be loved, we need opportunities, we need encouragement, and forgiveness and even to be given the chance to overcome failure and mistakes – sometimes big mistakes. Personally, I am revolted by the idea of the Great and the Good. I’m revolted by the idea that “success” is defined in terms of money. I’m revolted by the idea that more elevated human beings must help “the poor”. Whatever our finances, we need to help each other just as much as we need to be helped — all of us.
But I think the far left too often do not appreciate that we each need to feel that we are needed, that we need to make a contribution. And just as having greater wealth does not necessarily make us more or less virtuous, neither does being poor. The poor are not intrinsically either more virtuous or more criminal.
All of which gets me, rather tiresomely I fear, back to the conclusion that we are all part of an incredible universe. We are all incomplete by ourselves, and we need each other every bit as much as we need to be individuals. We’ll make mistakes. Some of will make big, destructive mistakes. Even when we are trying to be heroic, to make a significant contribution. But that’s the way we were made.
So after this little sermon to myself, I will continue to do my hum-drum best.
And be grateful beyond words for a chance to share in this great incredible mystery of life.
Equality is one of those soft fuzzy words, like love, that almost everybody says is a good idea. Politicians, philosophers, theologians, and most people in everyday life think it’s a great idea, even an important principle.
Pope Francis in recent weeks has said that building equality is quite possibly the biggest challenge of the modern world. Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics has just published a book on capitalism in the 21st century, presenting powerful data that the growing disparities between the rich and the poor in countries from America and Britain to emerging economies risks fueling significant social unrest, democratic deficits and even revolution.
But if we look beneath the surface, what different people mean by equality is so different that they sometimes seem to be completely opposite concepts masquerading behind the same word. Is it based, as the U.S. Constitution suggests, on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? or the Golden Rule in which everyone deserves to be treated as we ourselves would wish to be treated? or the religious exhortation to “love one another”? These are principles which many of us support. But our universal agreement about what they mean breaks down almost immediately after we try to apply them.
The difficulty, as I see it, is that equality tends to become reduced solely to economic issues, which in turn become inextricably mixed with our human diversity. It would be great if we could just give everybody the same amount of money, period. But apart from the fact that nobody would put up with it, at the end of the day, some people would still manage to have more money at the end of the week than others. So the essence of our equality cannot be economic.
Just as important as equality to our happiness and survival is our diversity, our vastly different abilities and talents. We are all different. And we need to be different. We need others who are different from us to be complete ourselves. We can’t each grow our own food, make our own clothes, build our own shelter. We can’t even have offspring without the cooperation of a member of our opposite sex. Our great diversity is one of the greatest attributes of the human species, and why we have been able to accomplish so much. Some people are great athletes, some are skilled mathematicians, others musicians. Some people have great social sensitivity and a capacity for insight and kindness, others are unusually creative, have exceptional language abilities, or engineering or spatial abilities. Some people have a dogged determination that keeps them going in the face of great adversity, others have acute sensory abilities. There are great leaders, great facilitators, great doctors, great financial analysts, great teachers. The list is endless, and we each can benefit from almost every one of them.
The problem is that diversity gets confused with equality. In thousands of very important ways we are not equal, and instead of rejoicing in our combined strengths and gifts, we often are resentful. Diversity in relation to religious beliefs and cultural practices and in relation to material wealth seem to me to be the areas where we have the most trouble accepting diversity. If you are “one of us,” it might be more tolerable for you to have more than I do.
But if you speak a different language, practice a different religion, or have a different colour skin, resentments often swell to a determination to stamp out your gift. Besides war, there are many social practices and laws which work quietly to eliminate diversity on the grounds that it’s “not fair.” Or that acknowledging one kind of gift will make others feel inferior. We ignore or even denigrate many great contributions in place of superficial accomplishments like “celebrity.”
Clearly we can’t reduce equality to economics. And yet there is a bottom line. There are basic things which every individual in any society needs to flourish, and we can’t assure that basic equality with monetary handouts. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what those basic needs are. And also asking to what extent society has an obligation to do everything possible to give every individual a chance to fulfill their potential.
I’m not so naive as to think I can come up with the definitive answers. I’d be competing with Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Marx, and the founding fathers of more than one country, and too many others to name. But it’s what I’m thinking about these days, so it’s what I plan to blog about for the next couple of posts.
When I was a graduate student not too far off half a century ago, I remember addressing the question in philosophy asking if the human mind is capable of ever fully understanding the universe and how it works.
The answer is that, although we will never exhaust our potential for learning more, we will never achieve a complete understanding of the world in which we live either. Our minds are not sufficiently capable of transcending the kind of time and space in which we were created to survive.
This rarely emerges as an urgent problem for most of us. Many of us (and I include myself) don’t even understand what it is that we don’t understand. I don’t really understand, for instance, how negative and positive electrons whirling around the nucleus of an atom produce electricity, which in turn runs all the appliances in my house with a simple switch. Some people do. But even physicists have no idea how some of our most basic, even everyday processes work. Gravity is one example. Thanks to Newton, scientists can describe gravity mathematically, but even Newton said it was a complete mystery how objects can act on each other over distances of millions of light years. We still can’t explain it, and the number of events in which this kind of thing occurs has expanded with the evidence leading to quantum physics. In fact, the more we learn, the longer the list gets of things we can’t fully explain.
Some people explain everything we don’t understand – and a lot that we do – with the concept of “God.” They conclude that there must be a God, for instance, because there isn’t any other explanation for how the universe came into existence. What people mean by the term “god,” however, varies. God for some is a kind of all-powerful dictator whose all-encompassing love seems subject to irrational tirades during which anybody in the way gets punished for displeasing him. Others have a more transcendent, even mystical, idea of god, beyond simple anthropomorphic description. Finally, there are those who decline to use the god explanation at all, and prefer to live with unanswered questions, or even in mystery.
The interesting thing for me, though, is that our certainty about some of the most important questions in life does not seem to depend on whether we believe in god or not. I’ve been accused of being on my way to hell for straying from the Path of Righteousness, but I’ve heard non-believers make accusations about the pig-headedness of believers with the same level of intolerance.
I have convictions by which I live, and for which I would fight. I think, for instance, that it is morally despicable to refuse an abortion to a woman to save her life and who is in the process of a miscarriage which was going to result in any case in the death of the fetus. Yet that is what happened in Ireland, and members of Parliament who have just voted to change the law so this will not happen again have been accused of a sin so grave that they deserve to burn in eternal hell-fire.
But how do I know that some of my convictions are not as wrong-headed as I think some convictions of others are? And would it not be as wrong for others to follow my convictions simply because I tell them I am right as it would be for me to follow their convictions because they say I’m destined for hell?
No. Difficult as it is, we each have to follow our own conscience, and respect others who must do the same.
Even if they do disagree with me.
Someone just asked me what I thought about recent research strongly suggesting that the brain and thought are intrinsically related. Is thought physical, he asked?
This is cheating, I know, but this was my attempt to answer the question to the best of my ability:
Whew! Do you know you are grappling with one of the biggest philosophical, theological, and scientific questions of all time. In psychology it’s most often referred to as “the mind-body problem,” but the question goes back at least as far as Plato.
I was a young adolescent when I first learned that Luther had taught that doubt was an inevitable part of belief. I wondered at the time if my father’s ancestors had been Lutheran rather than Roman Catholics, because it was my lawyer-father who first taught me to doubt.
But what my father did not teach me, and what has taken me a lifetime to learn is that there aren’t any Right Answers available to us humans either. Whether I was discussing theology or cooking a chicken, I thought there was One Right Way. I was usually open to exploring the possibility that my way wasn’t that Right Way, but I was always looking for it, I always thought it was there.
A graduate course on Immanuel Kant gave me my first glimmer into the realization that Right Answers might not be absolute. And being married to someone from a different cultural and religious background (not to mention an opposite sex), was almost a daily reminder that my Right Answers were not quite as obvious as I thought.
In recent years I have found not looking for Right Answers is amazing fun. Whether I’m putting supper together or planning a garden or even a book, it’s so freeing, so exciting to feel that the possibilities are endless. There isn’t just one Right Way. There isn’t even just one Best Way.
Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy showed conclusively that we cannot and never will be able to predict exactly what is going to happen on the level of quantum physics. Yet many people clung to the idea that the world of our everyday lives is predictable. Most recently, economists thought that they could develop statistic patterns that would predict the stock markets. Despite their blatant failure and the crisis of 2008 whose fall-out remains with us, many people, economists and non-economists alike, still believe they know, they have the absolutely non-negotiable Right Answer, to how we should revive our economy.
Now I have just finished reading two books which are further undermining our hopes for certainty and for right answers. Any surviving hopes among deterministic, mechanistic scientists for absolute predictability are dangerous and illusory. The first book is by Nicholas Taleb, the New York trader who says that the crisis was an example of what he calls “a black swan event.” A black swan event is extremely rare, and so extraordinarily difficult – in fact, ultimately impossible – to predict using the statistic tools of probability. Taleb argues that not expecting the unexpected is the worst possible way to prepare for it.
The second book is The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, the New York Times guru who correctly predicted both the 2008 and 2012 Presidential election outcomes in 49 out of 50 states. Despite this success, Silver says that prediction is getting less certain, partly because we know so much. So much of the data is sheer noise, distraction from hearing the true signal.
In a way, in order to survive, we must live with the assumption that some things are going to happen. We even need to plan them , and we need to believe that to some extent we can control those outcomes. And to some extent we do.
But actually, we cannot predict even the next second with absolute certainty. We can’t know for certain what we should do about anything. We can plan for the future, we can put money into pensions, we can try to take care of our health, we can do our best to put effort into relationships that are significant, we can get an education, we can follow our dreams. But we might be poor, we might die young, our relationships may not last, our dreams may shatter.
That’s a bit scary.
But it’s also the way it is.
And having spent many years in the cage of Right Answers, I also find it liberating. What will be, will be.
It suddenly occurred to me today why I’m not a mystic, and why I don’t even want to be one. I don’t want to close my eyes to everything this world has to offer and retreat to some deep meditative practice, concentrating on finding the transcendent Truth deep within myself.
I am a thinking, sensing, living human being, and I find this world totally fascinating, exhilarating, energizing. Yes, I also find it infuriating, exhausting, puzzling.
But I was born into this world with the body that I have, the needs and capacities that I have, and I have no desire whatsoever not to be what I am, and to use my abilities to the full.
No, I don’t want to drown in acquiring things, and I certainly do not want to be any kind of celebrity. Too many things, too much celebrity only get in the way.
But I love this world and I want to drink it in in every possible way. I love trying to solve problems. I love discussions about the meaning of life, I love people who come up with new inventions, I love beautiful music. I love those small acts of kindness or understanding one sees in ordinary exchanges in places as prosaic as the grocery store.
No I’m not a mystic.
And I don’t even ever want to be one.
During most of my career as a cognitive psychologist, I expressed grave doubts about the Western version of IQ or Intelligence Quotient, often simply called “general intelligence.”
Despite more than a century’s worth of testing, psychologists still cannot come up with a better definition of intelligence than “the ability to adapt.” Given that this is the concept that lies at the core of intelligence, you would think that there would be greater reservations about more than a century’s worth of testing that reduces IQ to two fundamental abilities – verbal and mathematical. Traditional IQ tests do not pay even lip service to musical, artistic, athletic, or inter-personal abilities.
In addition they are highly biased in terms of content with which a middle-class child is apt to be familiar. Educators and psychologists agree that what they call intelligence is influenced by both genetics and environment, but the environment is not adjusted for in traditional intelligence tests.
As a result, IQ tests do a fairly good job at predicting who can succeed academically. They do not predict who will make the most money, who will report as adults that they are happy, or the success of their family life. And a recent study of students in the Bronx has demonstrated that non-cognitive characteristics like grit, persistence, curiosity, and sheer character are absolutely necessary and themselves are highly predictive of success, even academically. Exceptionally high intelligence and educational opportunities to develop it are not enough.
Traditional concepts of intelligence embed in many of us an assumption that if people aren’t like us, they are less intelligent. If the elderly aren’t as good with modern technology as younger people, the assumption is that younger people are smarter. Or possibly even that old people are dumber. Ethnic minorities, people with physical deformities, or language difficulties are often discriminated against as being less intelligent. A lack of proficiency in the dominant language of a country is often assumed to be because the person isn’t intelligent. I have seen this dreadful misconception operate in relation to doctors, professors, engineers, and social workers who speak haltingly or with a heavy accent.
I’ve reached the conclusion that our traditional concept of intelligence is a chauvinist Western prejudice. It’s a way of fooling ourselves into thinking that we are superior to the peoples we have colonized in the last 400 years.
The assumption is often made in all good faith. But unfortunately, it can be a way of staying stupid ourselves.
I spent my childhood obsessed with Right Answers. Solutions to problems were divided exclusively into two categories – Right and Wrong, and I was bright enough to get a large percentage of the solutions in the Right category. But that left me with an exaggerated fear of the humiliation of being wrong. So I avoided problems that I was not confidant I could solve, or problems that involved “thinking out of the box.” This narrow thinking permeated every area of my life, and didn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation or creativity. I followed directions, I cooked by strictly following the recipe.
I have gradually given up this faith in Right Answers. Whether in matters of religion or of science, in personal or impersonal situations, I have learned just how liberating doubt can be. How it opens up a whole new world of possibilities – ranging from the meals I cook to my thoughts about the meaning of life.
I have just finished reading the book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb , also the author of the Black Swan He offers a fascinating view that suggests to me why this Right Answer approach is a deeply flawed philosophy for living.
Crises and stress, Taleb says, are unavoidable. Not only that, but the potentially most catastrophic events happen so rarely that they are statistically unpredictable for all practical purposes. Because crises – what he calls Black Swans – are going to happen, he argues that we are better off not trying to create systems in which mistakes can “never happen again.” Rather we should create systems that can continually learn and benefit from mistakes and stresses and adjust, so that when the really big crisis arrives (ie – the unexpected “Black Swan” like the sub-prime banking catastrophe), the system is more apt to be able to deal with it without complete catastrophe.
He gives examples of what he means from a quite surprising variety of systems – like evolution, or even our need to stress our muscles and impact our bones in order to strengthen them. The entire universe and all the enduring systems within it are systems that have learned to change and adjust as a result of stress. Survival depends on our ability to learn from our mistakes, rather than trying to avoid them altogether.
I think the idea underlies a wonderfully creative and daring attitude toward life. I love it!
So I am now going into the kitchen and see what I can do with the herbs and spices and various seasonings we have hanging around to turn the frozen turkey leftover from our Christmas dinner into a meal that is a little more creative than the standard pot pie I’ve been putting together for years.
I hope it’s at least edible. I really don’t need to learn from the stress of a starving household.
The news is reporting today that an 81-year-old Englishman woke up after three weeks following a stroke speaking fluent Welsh. The surprise was that, although he lived in Wales as an adult, he didn’t speak Welsh before. The doctors couldn’t understand what he was saying, and needed his wife who speaks Welsh to translate.
This kind of thing has happened before. If, as a result of a brain trauma of some kind, the speech center in the brain is altered slightly, the person may discover that they know things of which they had been completely unaware. MRI brain scans suggest that for almost all of us, we are unaware of as much as 85% of what is locked in our brain.
It’s the kind of discovery that makes me take intuition much more seriously. So many of us tend to think that science and reason are the only valid ways of learning. But we know so much more than we know we know. I think intuition is often a result of some sense we have without being able to access consciously why we are suggesting that possibility.
It’s not that intuition doesn’t have to be checked out against the evidence as much as any scientific theory. Intuition can be just as wrong as any scientific hypothesis. My intuition that someone is uninterested may be a mistaken interpretation when someone is tired. An intuition that you are lying may be a misinterpretation of fear. The potential examples are limitless.
So I don’t trust intuition as an infallible act of faith. But I listen these days.
I might be telling myself something worth listening to.
A commenter on yesterday’s post said the whale’s spurt of air refracted by the sunlight looked like Einstein’s head — but that “I didn’t do well on Rorschachs.”
For those – possibly fortunate few – unacquainted with the Rorschach Inkblot test, it is a series of ten cards which are used to assess a person’s emotional responses and thought processes. For instance, what do you see in this inkblot?
Or what about this one?
You see the potential. The theory is that answers to the ten different Rorschachs will form patterns which a competent therapist can recognize and interpret. So a patient maybe diagnosed as exhibiting a sexual obsession or gender confusion, a fear of violence, various attitudes toward authority, a need to dominate, and so on.
The assumption is that the therapist’s interpretation is the valid one. But the responses to the inkblots are themselves verbal Rorschachs, and might say as much about the therapist as about the patient. So trust in the accuracy of the therapists’s analysis is somewhat akin to an act of faith.
In this faithless age of questioning, disbelief has even entered into the sanctity of the psychiatrist’s office.
You just can’t count on anything anymore these days.
All right, I admit I have not spent much time thinking about Voltaire lately. In fact, I’ve not spent much time thinking about him at all. I didn’t even make the mistake of thinking he is the one who said “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.” I thought it was Thomas Payne addressing the writers of the U.S. Constitution.
But Voltaire did say some insightful, some funny, and some pithy things. Helped along with a little prodding from Google, below are a few examples I rather like.
It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.
I have chosen to be happy because it is good for my health.
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
Judge a man by his questions, not by his answers.
It is better to risk sparing a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.
Voltaire was born more than four centuries ago, and it’s still taken me almost a life time to learn some of these things. I don’t think evolutionary theory has an adequate explanation for why some of us are such slow learners.
As I said in my post yesterday, a fundamental piece is missing in my understanding of the nature of life so that the whole universal endeavour seems contradictory. Our study of the evolution of life on this planet seems to suggest that there are two universal characteristic of all living things. First, living organisms, including us, are potentially capable of doing anything, apparently without any exceptions whatsoever, to survive. Since we all must kill to eat, all living things are at least complicit in preying on others. Second, we engage in caring, cooperative, and generous behaviors toward others, something which we also need to receive if we are to survive not only as a species but as individuals.
Two days ago the mother and father of six children were arrested for deliberately starting a fire that killed their six asleep in the upstairs bedrooms. Several years ago, a mother was convicted of arranging for the kidnap of her daughter in order to make money. Yesterday the UN observers in Syria reported finding 13 bodies with their hands died behind their back and shot in the head at close range. Before that, a hundred members of an extended family, including almost half children, were knifed to death in Houla.
Why? Why do the most fundamental impulses of survival sometimes seem to get so horribly out of kilter?
The Platonic-Christian answer is that we are born sinners in dire need of redemption. Most religions teach some variation on this theme including often the existence of a positive force of evil which is at odds with the forces of good. Buddha, on the other hand, said that behaviors like these are a reflection of our incompleteness.
This makes more sense to me. We are not morally outraged by a crocodile that consumes a hapless swimmer for lunch, the lion that preys on the lamb, or even the maggots feeding on the dead bird. We are not morally outraged by the bear that attacks the hunter in order to preserve its own life or that of its cubs. We are not even morally outraged by two animals fighting a deadly duel over a fertile female.
But we are morally outraged by similar behaviors among ourselves. We do believe that we have developed an awareness and sensitivity that often makes these behaviors unnecessary for survival. (Although it is worth pointing out that we often justify killing and torture and deceit if we feel threatened. Look at the response of the United States after 9/11, and the government-sanctioned torture of sometimes completely innocent suspects.)
It seems to me that the idea of sin developed as a useful survival mechanism to control some of the worst of our self-destructive and murderous behaviors, survival behaviors which seem to have got out of control. Behaviors that endanger our own survival or that of the community to which we belong are controlled by society by calling them “sins.” Threats of punishment, whether it be in the present life or the “next,” often control many excesses.
But it obviously isn’t complete. And in any case, it’s a stop-gap effort. When we are not convinced for ourselves that some behaviors are wrong, we will rob, steal, betray, murder, and torture as long as we think we can get away with it. I do not think this is a result of some people being “evil.” It’s because we are not yet fully developed human beings. We act instinctively, without further thought, defending our survival by whatever means we can.
I planned a murder once. I seriously planned it and seriously considered whether I could get away with it without getting caught. I decided I could.
But I didn’t do it.
My first response was to be shaken to the core of my being at the discovery that I am capable of such wretched self-serving, viciousness. I was already middle-aged, and although I had enough self-knowledge by then to realize I was not all that morally superior to everybody else, I did not think I was capable of this. It took me years to forgive myself for what I finally recognized as a potentially unrestrained drive for survival.
But I didn’t commit murder. And perhaps to understand why is as informative as why I even considered it. Not to pat myself on the back as a good person after all, but to understand how it is that we all are capable of developing fundamental moral principles based on the very survival principles that sometimes seem to go so horribly array.
But enough already on this weighty subject. Why I didn’t do it is the subject of another post.
One of the most interesting puzzles for me in science arises out of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
But first, let me begin by making it clear that I’ve never been aghast to have learned that we Homo sapiens have evolved from earlier primates and before that from fish and before that, etc. I’m not sure why people find this either demeaning or unworthy of God. I think it’s truly marvellous. There is this great, incredible, amazing universe and as far as we can tell, we are at this point the most exalted thing that has arisen out of it. I’m not saying I’m of the conviction that it was created just for us, though I suppose that’s possible. But we do, at this point, seem to be at the top of the pinnacle.
It connects us to everything. We are part of everything. We belong here. We’re not strangers somehow exiled in a foreign country speaking a foreign language.
So I really love Darwin’s theory of evolution. I love what it says about us and our place in the world and who we are.
But it does create a conundrum for me. If we are part of the process of what the universe is and is becoming, then to understand ourselves we need to understand this process and to embrace it.
Science in general and the theory of evolution in particular tells us that this process is one of non-stop becoming. The universe and every living thing in it is driven by an impulse to survive, to endure, somehow, even to become more.
But here’s my conundrum. To survive all living things do two things: they prey on and consume each other, and they cooperate with each other. We can see this among one-celled bacteria who consume each other, but also join together to create more complex organisms for living. We see it in everything in the animal kingdom, and we see it in ourselves. One does not need to turn on the television for the latest bombing, war, torture, or murder for examples of our drive to eliminate enemies of our survival at whatever cost. It is impossible to do something as simple as walk into a supermarket without seeing evidence of all the killing that goes on to support even the most pacific human life.
At the same time, cooperative, supportive behavior among and between various life forms is just as deep and pervasive. Viruses might invade another organism and eventually kill it. On the other hand, even our own guts are filled with essential bacteria whose life support we could not live without. We see dolphins helping humans, dogs helping elephants, giraffes helping hippopotamus, we see what we call heroism and kindness and altruism and generosity in the human condition daily.
We often tend to think that competitive survival behaviors are selfish and destructive, and that altruistic selfless concern for others is always essentially a higher form of relating to the world.
But that isn’t so. Even the holiest among us must kill in order to eat. And even the most selfless will become a burden on society if they are unable to stand up for themselves when necessary.
To survive we need both. What is moral is a balance between self-reliance and concern.
But that’s enough for today. I’ll save a discussion about how this idea underlies my current views of morality for another post.
PS: Don’t ask about the watering system. Sufficient to say that sometimes a few babbling paragraphs of philosophical angst are a downright relief.
The second unresolved problem which I find both fascinating and liberating is what has been known for a century and a half in philosophy and psychology as the Mind-Body problem.
Essentially, the problem is that all the evidence suggests that what we think and feel (okay, what we call our “mental processes”) both is influenced by and influences our observable physical processes. We know that drugs, for instance, can influence our mental state. And we know that what we think can influence our physical state. What we think is happening or even think might happen can increase our pulse rate and blood pressure. But how physical changes influence the energy of thought and vice versa is unclear. That they do is undoubtedly so. But how does something physical like a drug affects something apparently non-physical like a thought?
It is in some ways the same as the more modern question, What is Life? How do a series of apparently mechanistic chemical reactions lead to a dynamic organism capable of self-replication, driven by self-preservation, and possessing a variety of levels and forms consciousness?
This question is actually a relatively recent one because when science as a separate discipline first emerged in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Roman Catholic church still held powerful temporal powers and severely punished those who were considered heretics. Cruel executions were quite common. Scientists, therefore, made a great effort to avoid suggesting that they were infringing on Rome’s territory. Science, they said, was concerned only with the natural world. The spiritual world still belonged exclusively to Rome. Since the spiritual world included the soul, the life-giving force in every living thing, the question of how life could arise out of natural forces was too dangerous to even raise.
Matter, on the other hand, the stuff of this apparently imperfect, inferior, and temporary world was not alive. Natural laws were not dynamic but purely mechanistic. Newton’s theory of gravity seemed to offer a comprehensive view of this assumption.
By the 19th century, however, scientists were free to dismiss the soul as a life force. But if life and consciousness could not be explained by a soul from another world, then life must occur naturally. Consciousness must also be a natural phenomenon. And so the mind-body problem, and questions about the nature of life emerged.
I remained a dualist for far longer than I remained a religious believer because I could think of no resolution to these twin problems. Many scientists today remain “reductionists” arguing that consciousness is only an epi-phenomenon. For them, once science is able to develop the conditions in a laboratory in which life emerges from a chemical reaction, the problem is solved. For them, life is shown to be the result of a purely mechanistic process.
I’ve never been able to accept this reasoning. Consciousness is real in its own right. It is not a figment of my imagination. I believe we still have the problem, even if we know all the life-producing equations, of how apparently something as ethereal and immaterial as thought and feeling arise out of matter.
I think now the answer lies somewhere in recognizing that until recently we have misunderstood the nature of matter. Einstein’s theory rejects the mechanistic view of matter held by Newton, and demonstrates instead that matter and energy are different manifestations of the same thing. Matter, in other words, is dynamic rather than passive. The emergence of life, then, is not a supernatural event, but a natural result of the energy intrinsic to matter.
This insight still leaves us with unanswered questions, but I find looking for it in the mystery of the natural world more freeing than looking for the answer in Plato’s supernatural world or religion’s “soul” which is conceived as a force created directly by God and wholly above and outside of nature. Science is only recently coming to terms with the realization that the nature of life and of consciousness lies wholly within its realm.
Yes, life, the mind, the body, consciousness belongs to the poet, to the artist, to the religious thinker, to the mystic, to philosophy. But it belongs just as fully and wholly to the scientist.
One would think that of all the questions we humans might be unable to answer, a core issue at the heart of everyday experiences about which we all agree everywhere in the world would not contain one of the biggest problems physics faces.
But it is, and it’s a problem that revolves around the very nature of time and space. The laws in physics detailing what happens on the quantum level of particles frequently contradict the laws of time and space as we all know them. Particles seem to go in and out of existence, for instance. And particles seem to be able to transcend space, influencing what happens half way around the earth, and quite possibly much much further. Up and down, before and after, inside and outside don’t operate on the quantum level in ways we expect them to in the world in which we live.
I won’t embarrass myself by trying to explain this in greater depth. I would undoubtedly make a fool of myself.
But I do know enough to know that it is an unresolved problem that Einstein spent his life trying to solve. And couldn’t.
If even a genius can’t get out of bed in the morning and truly feel as if he understands what’s going on around him, there’s an awful lot we don’t know. If we don’t understand even the basics of time and space, and if our grasp of the nature of matter and energy is so tenuous, I think we can say there’s a big chunk we don’t understand.
Knowing how much we don’t know should keep us from getting too arrogant, shouldn’t it? I find it very liberating, but I think sometimes it might also be quite scary, sending us running for cover with a dubious collection of Right Answers.
I don’t exclude myself from this temptation.
There is something about unanswered questions, apparent contradictions, unsolved puzzles in science and philosophy that I find liberating. I’ve spent a great deal of intellectual energy looking for right answers, and yet the realization that I haven’t got them keeps the cage unlocked. I can still walk around without the burden of Rules that having the right answers seems to impose on me.
Yes, I have values, I make assumptions, I even have strong convictions. But there is always that open door to the outside, that knowledge that I haven’t got the whole picture, that I might be wrong, that there’s a whole world out there of which I am a part but which is an almost total mystery.
There are three unresolved apparent contradictions that I find particularly fascinating. One comes from physics, one comes from psychology, and one arises out of the theory of evolution.
Skip my posts for the next three days if you don’t want to hear any more. I do realize that not everybody is as fascinated by navel-gazing as I sometimes am.
A recent finding by the UK government’s adviser on poverty has pointed to what I think is quite probably the most significant parenting skill of all: talking to ones children.
Frank Field has found that the amount of talk between a parent and a child predicts the child’s future achievements better than class, better than ethnicity, and better than income. He also found that by the time a child is three, a child from a functional family has heard almost half a million more positive and encouraging comments from their parents than a child in a dysfunctional family.
This is recent research, but the findings are not new. As long as 40 years ago, David McClelland, a Harvard psychologist, found that family interactions predicted adult achievement better than school grades.
Research has also studied children who are survivors – that is children who come through what to an outsider looks like significant abuse or neglect or other traumas such as illness or death in the family. The single most significant difference they found is that “survivors,” children who came through and triumphed over trauma, had at least one significant adult who cared about them. Sometimes that significant other was a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, a boy scout leader, or perhaps a neighbour.
Just one person can completely change a child’s world forever.
That’s sort of encouraging to know, isn’t it?
I have often said throughout my career as a psychologist that children need fathers. It is not that life without a father is a total loss or that children are inevitably destroyed as a result of being raised by a single mother.
But not having a father is to miss something terribly important. To deliberately deprive a child of a father as an unnecessary nuisance in the house is like choosing to give the child one eye instead of two. Or one hand instead of two.
Now research is showing that men need to be fathers just as much as their children need them. Fatherhood changes men every bit as much as motherhood changes women.
A recent study in America found that young men who became fathers changed significantly. They smoked less, drank less, even engaged in criminal behavior less than they did in their pre-fatherhood days and also less than their contemporaries who did not become fathers.
But fatherhood is something one must be ready for. Men becoming fathers in their late twenties or early thirties were much more apt to change their negative high-risk behaviors than men who became fathers at an earlier age.
Happiness these days seems to be a popular research topic. What makes us happy? what kind of people are happy? is it genetic? how much does it depend on our circumstances? does enough money make us happy? does more money make us happier? Do the same things make people happy or cause them unhappiness?
If I were still an active academic, I think I would write a summary of this fascinating research in progress. Happiness is a lot more complicated than I would have believed.
Many things influence happiness. Generally speaking, the employed are happier than the unemployed, the young and old tend to be happier than the middle-aged, extroverts are happier than introverts, confident people are happier than their less confident contemporaries. There are people who believe we can teach ourselves to be happier, or that we need sunshine to be happy.
One study about a “happiness gene” has particularly intrigued me. Researchers have known for some time that the capacity for happiness is partly genetically controlled, and have identified the gene that seems to be principally responsible for these differences.
A recent study found that Asian Americans tend to have fewer “happiness genes” than White Americans and Black Americans have more than White Americans.
There is a need for much broader study before reaching too-far reaching conclusions, but studies suggests that these serotonin-transporter or happiness genes tend to concentrate in ethnic groups, and so may reflect fundamentally genetic differences in societies, even in countries.
Furthermore, in societies such as China and Japan which have lower levels of effective mood elevating genes, people seem to prefer political systems that emphasize harmony and provide relatively high levels of security. Entire countries with different levels of happiness genes may prefer greater levels of individual independence even at the cost of greater risk.
So the happiness question isn’t just of interest to psychologists anymore. Politicians and economists are equally interested for reasons of their own.
In any case, it seems clear that one size does not fit all. There isn’t going to be a system out there that will make everybody happy.
It is sometimes surprising how radically the meaning of something can change when we put the exact same words in a different context.
My father-in-law used to refer to his wife as “the rose in his garden.” He was obviously not referring to a botanical reality. He did, however, have a rose-bush in his garden, and when he said when we pruned it in the fall that we should “murder” it, he was just as obviously not referring to his wife. Actually, he didn’t mean to literally murder the bush either.
Sometimes we can mistake the context or an idea or not recognize that it’s a context at all. When I was about three, my mother once explained that my dad would be late for dinner because he was “tied up on the road.” I thought she meant this literally, and wondered how my father was going to unknot the ropes which were tying him up.
It’s not just the thinking of individuals that we need to understand in context. Stories, literature, art, myth, even laws have to be understood in context.
So too, scientific thinking, like all other thought, has developed in a context. In terms of modern science, it emerged in 15th century Europe when the political power of the Roman Church was still paramount. As the story of Galileo demonstrates, it was often dangerous to think scientifically, and scientists for centuries tread a careful path between evaluating observable evidence and avoiding censure.
One of the attempts to do this was to emphasize that science was concerned only with explanations provided by natural laws. Theological thought, God, and the rest of the spiritual world belonged solely to the authority of the Church. This was not a totally successful strategy – it is still not today – but it often created the space for some kind of co-existence.
Bu the thinking of scientists was not uninfluenced by this compromise. One of the most critical compromises was the scientists’ implicit agreement to keep hands off the supernatural world. But without realizing it, I believe scientists surrendered a part of reality to the religious authorities. Plato had posited a supernatural world in the first place to explain how it was possible for us to have ideas about perfect things that do not actually exist in the concrete world of our experience.
In giving up the supernatural world as an explanation for natural events, scientists inadvertently assented to give consciousness a spiritual dimension. Consciousness, intention and goal-seeking were dismissed as potentially authentic scientific explanations.
This surrender was given a major boost by Newton’s theory of gravity. What gravity did was to mechanize the scientific view of the universe. It was – and is – an incredibly powerful theory, and displaced angels and similar explanations for how the stars stay up in the sky while apples fall to the ground.
Ironically, Newton himself recognized that gravity was not exactly a mechanical dynamic. Gravity does not involve any physical contact between bodies acting on each other, and Newton was forced to posit an additional mysterious force which he did not elaborate. It was perhaps comparable to the concept of dark energy which scientists today posit must be out there, but which they cannot yet define.
This mechanization represented a huge leap forward in our understanding of the universe. But it also led to what I think was a terrible loss from which we are only just beginning to recover in the last one hundred years or so.
With mechanization, the universe became passive. Dynamic forces were dismissed as epi-phenomena — not real in themselves. Animals were said to be no more than sophisticated machines, and were subject to horribly cruel experiments on the grounds that they are incapable of feeling any more than a car engine can feel. Everything that ever happened or ever would happen was the result of the operation of completely mechanical forces that will roll irrevocably forward to final entropy.
Science today sees the universe as far more dynamic. Matter itself is no longer perceived as purely passive, but to contain within itself the very energy that pushes the unfolding universe forward.
In the past, and for some even today, this suggestion that the universe possesses an intrinsic dynamic was dangerously close to a return to supernatural explanations. It was sneaking God in by the back door.
But today as quantum mechanics on one hand and astrophysics on the other are revealing realities to us that are incomprehensible in terms of our common sense conclusions, mysteries such as the thought processes that Plato found so inexplicable, or the potential of an intrinsically dynamic universe are no longer so intolerable. Scientists are less terrified of questions that in the past might have been held up as evidence of God and a supernatural world.
I think that in some ways this is giving us our world back. One can be a scientist without having to deny the essential reality of so many of those realities that were volunteered originally to the Church.
It’s why I myself find it so liberating to accept that I live inevitably in mystery. It means I don’t have to distort my experience to fit theory.
I can just say “we don’t know yet.”
And we’re never ever going to get to the point where there isn’t something we can’t explain.
I seem to get most of what I would call my insights when I am on an endorphin high, usually induced by a combination of moderately strenuous exercise accompanied by music.
If these “insights” are philosophical, they often feel like a religious experience. In my youth when I believed in divine revelation, that is unambiguously the way I interpreted them. They were “truths” revealed to me by God, and I gave them the unquestioned absoluteness of divine truth and command.
Today I often still give these kinds of insights and convictions validity. Many of them are strong enough to be pillars around which I direct my life.
But although they feel like quasi-religious revelations, I no longer think of them as being divine revelations from a God sent from a supernatural world of absolute goodness and truth.
That means I believe they need to be critically examined by me, not accepted without question.
But if not from God, then where do these insights, these convictions, these values which are sometimes so powerful, come?
Well, my best guess (and it is a guess) is that they come from the fundamental nature of being. Saying that, of course, in some ways is to say very little. There are those philosophers and poets and even scientists who can elaborate on this in a way I can’t.
For now I think in all candor I must admit I’m almost in over my head.
Maybe I’d better turn on the music and do a little bit more moderately strenuous exercise.
This morning Peter and I were discussing some conundrum or other over our morning coffee, and I uttered my back-up wisdom that always comes in handy when I don’t know the answer: “Life is a great mystery.” (Variants of this mantra can be adjusted to meet the need and range from “the universe is a great mystery” to “you are a great mystery,” or “leaking gutters are a great mystery.”
“Life,” Peter replied, “is a continuous procession of one problem after another.”
I’m not sure that’s the same thing as living in great mystery.
Though I couldn’t disagree about the continuous procession. Either it’s Afghanistan or the global economy. Or our leaky gutters which are determined that leaking is their mission in life.
Marshall McLuhan is responsible for recognizing how much “the message is the medium.” In other words, the medium we use for communicating is itself part of the message. Information communicated through the written page is quite different from parallel information delivered in person and face-to-face. Poetry is a different medium from sculpture, the book is different from television, and communicate a subtly different message.
McLuhan died recently, so we must elaborate his ideas on our own. Which I have been doing as I ponder the fact that Google is trying to launch another social networking site, while the younger generation is proclaiming that the phone and email are “obsolete.”
If the email is obsolete, what words should we use to describe television? or radio? or the book? What words should we use to describe something as ancient as talking to each other, or communicating by drum beat across the forest?
I think “obsolete” is an obfuscating description, and rather misses the point.
These various media operate in different ways and subtly communicate different kinds of information. They also almost certainly influence the formation of our very thought processes differently.
For example, Twitter can sum up the pithy insight and send it around the world. But by definition it does not support a complex argument or discussion. To the extent that it is used that way, it will make our thinking superficial and subject to the deadening influence of soundbites. Much as I resonated to Obama’s “Yes we can!” clarion call, it would be frightening if that sums up a successful campaign for the presidency of the United States.
Social networks are in some ways a cross between blogging and tweeting. Communications might be long or short, pithy or pathetic, personal or objective. But all three of these media have a one-way potential. I put an idea out there for anybody to read and respond to, but it is for anybody. That means it is not for you individually. I have not crafted the message for you particularly to understand. It’s a global message that anybody is supposed to be able to understand.
And that means it severely limits my learning to communicate with a unique individual. I’m not speaking in a whisper on the internet. I’m addressing the world using a megaphone. That is a talent. But so is being able to understand the unique individual. Internet communication gives me experience in addressing the public. It doesn’t do as much for helping me learn how to talk to that child curled up in a corner in tears. Or the desperate young man on the edge of the bridge threatening to jump.
Email and the phone have the limitation and the advantage of being between individuals or a small group. They are instantaneous, which I think is both their advantage and disadvantage. One does not have to wait for the boat to arrive for the next letter. You don’t even have to wait to turn the page or for the tv program to resume. But the downside of instantaneous is that we don’t have time to think about our response. We don’t walk away and ponder it. It’s said and off it goes irrevocably across the air waves.
As I reflect on changes that have occurred even in my own sense of self, I who grew up in a house without a television, and who was middle-age before email was invented. Being able to access the outside world 24 hours a day seems too often to focus my attention on how others may respond to what I think rather than my evaluating my own thoughts and decisions and action for myself.
In other words, I worry that too much public exposure dilutes our grounding in ourselves.
And this would be a terrible loss. It would make us far too dependent on what others think.
And so, much as I obviously love blogging and the internet in general, I profoundly hope that emails and phones are not obsolete. I hope radio is not obsolete. I desperately hope books are not obsolete. Even if we might read them on a Kindle instead of paper. I hope long conversations between just two people are not obsolete.
I even hope long periods of silence alone in which I ponder my own small thoughts are not obsolete and survive the arrival of yet another social network.
How do we know what we know, and how sure can we be that what we think we know is right?
I’ve been asking this question since I first realized as a graduate student how many great minds have grappled with this most obvious of questions.
The reason it remains such a critical question is because the unfortunate fact is that being absolutely sure, beyond the shadow of any possible doubt that I am right, is no a guarantee that I’m not wrong.
I’ve been thinking recently about the fundamental areas where I have changed my mind during my life. Obviously, there are questions of faith. For the first two and a half decades of my life, I believed in the reality of heaven and hell, and that I was destined for one or the other for eternity. Since then many more of the pillars of belief have fallen.
I have changed my mind about scientific conclusions when new research suggests that the original conclusions were wrong. I’ve also changed my mind when I realized I misunderstood the original evidence in the first place. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve changed my mind about other people’s motives. There have been times when I have been certain about why someone behaved in a certain way. And sometimes I have been distressingly wrong.
I do have a few convictions about which I am certain enough to live by. I consider many of these an act of faith – that is beyond empirical proof. Simply to be alive is one of these values. Even to be is a value, so that whatever exists has an intrinsic value. To be part of the mysterious evolution of this universe is a value. To live with integrity and respect for myself and for everything and everyone else in the universe is a value. To love and care for those who are in my life is a value.
Why? Where does this unprovable certainty come from? And could it be wrong? Of course.
My own values could be as wrong as those who have been willing to kill and to die in order to eradicate others who do not agree with their most fundamental values. Usually they take the form of religious beliefs but not always. Scientists are sometimes arrogantly certain about facts that science cannot guarantee. So to be wrong about my own convictions is both possible and terrifying – I might be wrong about the most important decisions in my life.
Martin Luther said that doubt is an essential component of faith. I know what he meant. It seems to me that honesty requires that I entertain the possibility of doubt about whatever it is that I think I know.
Possibly especially about those things about which I think I am most certain.
Happiness, as you may have noticed, has become a political issue. Stimulated by a recent spate of research, governments are asking whether it is part of their role to create conditions that are more apt to make people happier and not just richer. David Chernoff
I’ve read a lot of the research and find it quite interesting to examine some of the apparent patterns of reported happiness. Once one is securely above the poverty line – probably what one might broadly say is able to afford a lower middle-class life style – money does not generally make people happier. Getting older does. Around the world middle age people are happier than younger people, and old people are often the most content of all.
I personally am not interested in giving a government chief responsibility for my happiness, though I do appreciate that there are things governments can do to make people happier.
But after reading this research I have been asking myself about what specifically makes me happy. Like almost everyone else, my family and friends are critical. But beyond that, each of us are individuals. What, I have been asking myself, do I enjoy most often in an ordinary day? Is there a pattern that we can detect in our own lives that tell us something about ourselves? perhaps what kind of career we would find fulfilling, or even what activities we find make for the best weekends, or best retirement, or best summer holiday?
I was talking to the granddaughter of a friend yesterday who is trying to decide on her major in college as a preparation for her adult life. We began to talk about happiness research and have agreed that each of us will keep a list of three things we most enjoy each day, and at the end of a month will analyze each list to see what we can learn about ourselves.
I hope in a couple of months time to be able to report on whether this is a useful endeavor for either young or old.
I found myself spluttering today at an article in the London Times with the headline “How happy are you? Take the psychologists’ test and find out.”
It’s not just the religious leaders who alienate us from ourselves by confusing faith and belief. Now it’s the psychologists who are telling people that they have to consult an expert to find out what they are feeling.
I read the test thinking – hoping – that it was the journalist writing the article who had twisted what the psychologists were saying. But no: it is the psychologists themselves who are saying that they can measure happiness.
Now I wouldn’t object to psychologists saying that research suggest that the following 10 or 20 variables seem to be correlated with people’s reports of personal happiness. I wouldn’t mind if they recommended that unhappy people might try putting into their lives some of the things happy people report having in their own lives.
But I do object to this smug presentation of research suggesting that if you “fail” the test, you aren’t happy, whatever you might think. I object to the suggestions that the tests are a more accurate reading of what you are feeling than what each of us naively thinks we are feeling.
And I object furiously to the assumption that the same things makes everybody happy. As if happiness comes in a formula, like a recipe for a cake.
If you’d like to take a happiness test, there are many available for free on the internet. So if you don’t like the results of one test, you can always take another on. Click on Google for a whole selection of possibilities.
Before taking a test, it might be more interesting if you first ask how happy you think you are on a scale of 1-5. Alternatively, there’s also a new book out by Dr Cecillia d’Felice on how to get happier in 21 days.
Just think. The entire world could be transformed in a mere 21 days if people would just read one little book.
It might even replace the King James Bible in hotel rooms everywhere.
I was six years old when I first formulated the problem of evil for myself. Why, I asked my father, if God didn’t want us to commit sins and if he could do anything he wanted to, didn’t he just make us so that we didn’t want to sin in the first place?
My formulations have become more sophisticated in the six decades since then, but in some form or other, it’s a question I can’t leave alone.
I tried atheism as a solution for a short time. That solved the problem of god but it doesn’t solve the problem of suffering.
For a rather an embarrassingly longer time, I tried sainthood. I would become a saint and in the process transform the world. Mother Teresa may have failed. Even Jesus had not succeeded in eliminating suffering. But I had some vague notion that I could transform the world.
The next option, using my brain rather than virtue, fell upon similar barren ground. Being rather well-educated, you might think that even a casual acquaintance of the destruction resulting from world-reformers in the 20th century would have kept me from even starting down the path of utopia creation.
But somehow I kept feeling responsible for the world’s suffering, with a nagging sense of guilt that somehow I wasn’t doing enough. Here I was – and still am – living in relative comfort and safety. How can this be fair?
It’s not fair, of course. I don’t deserve, I have not earned, the good fortune which has graced my life.
And I still do not know why there is so much suffering in the world. I no longer feel totally responsible for it, but I would like to understand it.
Buddha said that sin is not a positive evil, but is, rather incompleteness. It is an indicator that we have not yet arrived, that we are still a work in progress. It’s an idea that resonates with me.
And if I have any tenants of what might be called faith left, it is that existence is good. To be alive is intrinsically valuable.
Exactly how suffering fits into this I’m not sure. Except that somehow I believe that it is a creative part of the unfolding of the universe.
This is, I accept, an act of faith. I can look at my own life and see in retrospect that what I thought was the worst possible thing that could happen was perhaps the best. But there is much suffering that I cannot imagine being creative. I find it impossible to look sanguinely as some suffering and blithely sing along with Mary Poppins that it will all be wonderful in the end.
So it’s an act of faith. Or rather an act of hope. I trust in the universe as it is. I trust that what looks so terribly wrong from my small perspective and that I personally cannot fix will, in the end, lead to greater good.
Having said that, if I live long enough, I am sure to visit this question umpteen more times.
I learned from an early age from my lawyer father that if you know you are right, the approach that is going to make you look absolutely brilliant is to explore with all apparent sincerity the possibility that you are wrong. That way, when your original position is vindicated, you look simply brilliant.
That may be where I first developed a deep distrust for people who are absolutely, nonnegotiably certain they are right about almost anything.
Lately, though, I’ve had the uncomfortable feeling that I am practicing a little more of this certainty myself than is good for me. I am constantly outraged by the news and I read articles that are just as outraged. The right seems so obviously right, wrong so demonstrably wrong, if not immoral, stupid, and self-destructive.
The discontent and lack of peace that this outrage brings me does not impress me, however, as being good for anybody. And I am increasingly distrusting it in myself.
I was helped along by three separate authors, each of whom seems to think his or her evaluation of Western and Arab nations actions in relation to Colonel Gaddafi and Libya is obviously insightful, generous and moral. There is a suggestion of outraged anger at all the stupid, self-serving people who disagree with them.
The problem is that each of these obviously right arguments are completely different.
One says that our intervention is high-lighting our true imperialist mission.
Another says that we are meeting a moral responsibility to stop genocide and protect basic human rights
The third says that if we don’t find a non-violent alternative to either bombing Libya or ignoring what is happening there, we will all be in trouble.
Oh yes. And Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa says that we should stay out of Libya because he is against “regime change.”
So I think I will continue to concentrate a little more in the days to come on realizing that I do not possess the wisdom nor have the responsibility to run the entire world single-handedly.
Despite knowing, of course, that I am right.
Some twenty years ago I was jolted by a rather terrifying insight into my absolute selfishness. I seem to have the capacity to put myself first under almost any possible circumstance. It’s not that I don’t love people. I do. But standing in front of the loaded gun, my first instinct is to let someone else take the bullet.
Putting someone else’s interests ahead of my own always seems to take a positive, conscious decision. Putting myself first is spontaneous.
For a long time I was horrified by this recognition.
But then I thought about the alternative. The alternative is not being able to take care of myself. The alternative is loving other people with the secret hope that they, in turn, will take care of me so I would not have to take responsibility for myself.
And that was when I realized that we need to be able to be responsible for ourselves before we are capable of loving other people for their own sakes rather than for our own.
And I stopped being quite so horrified by my own self-preservation impulses. We need them if we are not going to be childishly dependent on others for the rest of our lives.
In a similar vein, I’ve often tended to castigate myself for caring more about what is going on immediately around me than what is happening in far off places. Yesterday, for example, I think my bone density scan used up as much of my conscious attention as the catastrophe unfolding in all of Japan.
But that’s the way human consciousness has evolved. That’s the way it is supposed to be. The alternative illustrates why. People who are more concerned about the suffering in China than they are about the suffering of their own children with whom they are actually living are getting something terribly out of proportion. We simply are not meant to be responsible for every misfortune taking place on the globe.
All of which are examples of what I call my single act of faith: that existence is good. The universe is evolving as it must, and therefore as it should. My selfish concern for my own survival isn’t bad. It’s a very good starting point.
It just means the universe isn’t finished yet.
And it does mean that I can go on tending my own small garden without feeling guilty. I’m not supposed to run the world.
Important as I may think I am.
The work of a professor from Cambridge University studying elephants was reported by the BBC this morning. The report includes a video of elephants cooperating with each other to solve a problem that could not be solved by either of them alone, and suggests that this is an astonishing discovery.
It goes on to say – as if this is revolutionary – that researchers have actually documented elephants in the wild helping each other and says that we see”amazingly complex behaviours – culture, tool use, social interaction” throughout the animal kingdom.
How is it that we are just discovering what our ancestors before us knew tens of thousands of years ago – that we share with other animals our intelligence, our problem-solving abilities, our capacity to work together for mutual benefit?
My guess is that it started when Christianity adopted the Platonic two-world theory by teaching that Homo sapiens is unique, that we were created directly by God, that we have souls that set us apart from every other living thing in creation. Bit by bit, that alienated us from all the other animals.
In some ways, it may even have alienated us from any other members of our species whom we did not recognize. So that we have the Spanish conquistadores in what is now Latin America asking the pope in Rome to determine whether the natives were actually human. Even in the 20th century, we have American immigration authorities declaring that newly arrived European immigrants were significantly less intelligent than those already here, because intelligent tests were given to non-English speaking immigrants in English.
Last week a British soldier who worked with his sniffer dog to find and de-fuse road side bombs was killed by a sniper. The pair had saved the lives of thousands and were inseparable. When his master was killed, the dog was unhurt. But he went back to the camp, crawled into the tent, and died of a massive heart attack.
Did the dog die because his master had been killed? It is easy to believe.
The things that our two dogs knew were amazing. When we called the vet to put down our oldest Kuvasz, Suli, we took her younger companion, Dugo, to stay with a neighbor several blocks away. When we bought him back home, he did not look for Suli, something that had never never happened before.
It’s not just dogs and fish and dolphins and monkeys.
For thousands of years, philosophers have puzzled over how we humans know what we know. I don’t claim to know the answer. But I am convinced that we often know things we don’t know we know, or have any idea of how we know them.
I said in my post yesterday that I certainly would not want to hand over the power to dictate moral decisions to governments. For thousands of years governments have hijacked God and tried to use religion to stay in power.
The struggle, unfortunately, continues even in America. The South Dakota legislature are considering a bill that would legalize the killing of abortion doctors on the grounds that these doctors are endangering the lives of innocent victims. The legislation proposes to change the definition of murder in the case of someone murdering a doctor who performs abortion. Instead of calling it murder, killing abortion doctors would be categorized as justifiable homicide.
At least we have a Constitution and a Supreme Court. I agree it is by no means a fail-safe way of keeping religion and state separate. But it’s a lot better than nothing.
The High Court in London today ruled that a couple who taught their children that homosexuality was wrong could not be approved to adopt a child. They ruled that the couple were unfit as potential adoptive parents on the grounds that it is against the law to discriminate against homosexuals.
The couple are Pentecostal Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin and argued that discrimination against them on the grounds of their religious beliefs violated their rights to religious freedom.
What is so ground-breaking about this court ruling is that it ruled that secular laws of equality take precedence over religious laws, and that discrimination could not be justified on the basis of religious freedom.
Personally, I am loudly cheering the court’s decision.
But I do now find myself wrestling with a philosophical question about the source of moral values. I’m not of the view that if people don’t believe in some kind of God they have no reason to be good.
But I have not yet answered to my own satisfaction the question of where I think moral and ethical values should be rooted. I wouldn’t trust a group of elected legislators in any country I know with the task of making laws that simply suit their private moral views.
I need to do more thinking and reading about this. Where do my moral values come from and why am I so convinced it is right to respect creation and all that entails?
I have just stumbled on a fascinating book, Duel at Dawn by Amir Alexander at Harvard University. It throws an interesting light on a question I asked in several earlier posts: is there a relationship between Asperger’s syndrome or autism and mathematical genius?
Alexander’s thesis is that the nature of mathematical thought changed about two centuries ago. Before that, mathematicians beginning with the Renaissance believed that they were describing the way the universe worked. Mathematicians like Newton, for instance, saw mathematics as a description of the underlying structures and rhythms of the real world. By describing the reality of the objective world, mathematicians literally were seen as the companion explorers of the sea-going ships discovering new worlds.
About two centuries ago, however, a dramatic shift took place . A whole new group of mathematicians cut mathematics free from the constraints of describing the objective world. Mathematics, for them, exists in itself, by its own rules and logic. It is not necessarily connected to our objective world at all.
These new mathematicians are often seen as tortured geniuses, living in an abstract world of mathematical perfection but most often unable to live in the real world the rest of us inhabit. Some are clearly seen to be mentally ill. John Nash, whose story is told in the film A Beautiful Mind, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Galois died at the age of 20 in a duel, Kurt Gödel starved himself to death out of fear of being poisoned. The list is long and extends into our own day.
It is these modern mathematicians who live in a world of numbers which exists independently of the objective world most of us inhabit that has fascinated me. They relate to a world which is not inhabited by other living, thinking, feeling beings. Their world is absolutely logical, absolutely predictable, completely cleansed of the potentially inexplicable. As a result, despite their towering genius, they are often unbelievably poor in negotiating the real world with real people in it.
In other words, it seems to me, they are frequently autistic. One half of their brain seems to function at levels few of us can fathom, while on the other hand, they seem unable to comprehend inter-personal realities often grasped by even normal two-year-olds.
What Alexander’s book seem to suggest however, is that not all mathematical geniuses are intrinsically unable to adapt to life in the world as we know it. Quite possibly it is the other way around, that the highest regions of modern mathematics have been fashioned by a certain kind of mathematical genius – the kind of genius who is separated from concrete reality and inhabits an abstract world of numbers that is as real to him ( occasionally it is a her) as the world of people and cars and tables are to the rest of us.
If this is so, then mathematics will continue to evolve and change. It will not always find its locus totally isolated within itself.
So fascinating as Alexander’s thesis is, I still don’t know if Plato was autistic.
But can you see why I’m asking?
Cannibalism has appeared in the news several times recently. First is the evidence that cannibalism may have been developed to a rather high art among humans in Britain about 15,000 years ago.
The second appearance is rather more recent. The book just published about the 33 miners in Chile suggests that the idea of cannibalism had occurred to some of the men as they moved into their third week trapped underground. The miners were reduced to a single spoonful of tuna every three days with no assurance yet that they would be found. In the end, actual cannibalism did not become an issue before day 17 when the drill bit broke through.
I suggested to my husband that cannibalism, even when it was not motivated by outright starvation, was not necessarily dehumanizing. I said I thought it quite possible that eating parts of another human being was a sacred ritual in which the survivors were symbolically incorporating the best of the deceased person into their own lives. I pointed out that hunting societies frequently saw the killing and eating of animals as a sacred act, and that these activities were often accompanied by ritual. Perhaps this also motivated a group of modern cannibals discovered some years ago in Papua New Guinea who ate the heart and the brain of the loved one in carefully prescribed rituals.
My husband disagreed. His view is that cannibalism is dehumanizing, and does not reflect some sense that we are all part of the same world.
Some time later I wondered if my Roman Catholic upbringing, in which I was taught that the bread and the wine consecrated during mass literally became the flesh and blood of Jesus, explained my sense that consuming the flesh of another human being could be a sacred act.
Not, of course, that I ever thought of receiving the Eucharist as cannibalism.
But then, my point is that I think cannibalism isn’t always cannibalism in the terms we in the modern world generally understand cannibalism.
There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
Douglas Adams: English humourist and science fiction writer, 03/11/52 – 5/11/2001
I don’t actually remember when people thought the world was flat and that the sky was held up by sturdy poles at the four corners.
But the world must have seemed quite simple then. And it would have explained most of ones daily experiences as one walked around weeding the garden, hunting the rabbits, or starting the fire for the evening meal.
Yes, there would have been a few niggling questions for people who weren’t ever satisfied. Like why the positions of the stars in the night sky changed in such complicated ways. Or why it looked as if sailing ships were actually rising out of the sea when they appeared on the horizon, or seemed to be sinking into the sea when they sailed out.
But mostly things made sense for most people.
Then Copernicus and then Galileo came along and answered those niggling questions. The ships weren’t sinking as they went out to sea: it just looked like that because the world is round, not flat. And the stars’ positions aren’t really that complicated once we understand that earth is whirling around the sun, not the other way around, as well as turning on its own axis at the same time.
The problem is that these answers created a whole handful of even more niggling questions. Like why apples fall from the tree but the stars don’t fall from the sky. What is holding them up?
Eventually Newton came along with the theory of gravity, which “explained” why things fall or don’t fall to the earth. Or why, for that matter, we don’t all fall off the earth if it’s whirling so fast around in empty space.
Except that Newton didn’t really explain what gravity is. What he did was to develop a mathematical theory that enables us to predict with a fair amount of accuracy (although not with absolute accuracy) the conditions that determine when and what will fall to earth and what won’t. But to this day we don’t really know what gravity is. We only really know the conditions under which it works.
And then Einstein came alone and answered another niggling problem about the relationship between energy and matter. E= MC2.
Except that Einstein’s theory made even Newton’s world look simple. Einstein’s theory demonstrates that time and space – both of which seem fundamentally pretty non-negotiable to most of us most of the time – are relative. “Time” in outer space runs at a completely different speed than time on earth. And when time is different, so is space. Which doesn’t run in a straight line anyway once you get off earth, because space curves which is why parallel lines eventually meet if you go out far enough.
Quantum mechanics is another world of answers that you don’t want to know about if you really just want your questions answered. Once we get to the quantum level of the super-small, particles don’t seem to obey any of the rules we mortals in the grown-up world have to obey. Particles go in and out of existence. And a theory called entanglement suggests that they somehow can communicate with each other across the expanse of the universe at about a trillion times the speed of light.
It goes on and on like this. The more little niggling questions we answer, the more imponderable the next questions seem to become.
So all in all, I think Adams was right.
On the other hand, I personally agree that we should stop shooting the elephants. I don’t think it’s all that complicated to figure out.
Not only is there always another way of seeing things. They often are inextricable.
If you don’t see what I mean, concentrate on the white spaces inside the letters.
Churchill was a manic-depressive; Einstein’s brother and daughter were schizophrenic and Albert himself may have tended toward autism; Van Gogh was a tortured genius. The relationship between genius and various mental limitations may not be inevitable but it is frequent and well-documented.
I read recently that many of the most exceptionally gifted mathematicians in the world today believe that numbers have an independent existence. Research suggests that this same group are often autistic.
Which is one of the reasons why I wonder if Plato was what we would today call autistic. He believed that the world of perfect forms had a separate existence. In fact, he believed their real existence was in this other world. They were only ever manifest in imperfect forms in the concrete world in which we live.
It wasn’t until the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion that heaven became church doctrine. But Plato’s world of perfect forms was the forerunner of the concept of heaven gradually populated with angels and saints and over which God presides.
I’m really serious about the possibility that Plato was an autistic genius.
I’m not trying to suggest that autistics find it easier to believe in heaven than the rest of us. Just that the original idea that eventually led to the popular conception of heaven might have been seeded by an autistic genius.
I have just had an energetic exchange about poetry and science with someone whom I think believes I put too much faith in science and not enough in poetry.
I am aghast.
I have spent so much of my professional life droning on that science is not a source of absolute certainty, that scientific facts are relative and that these facts can and often do change. I also have argued – even here on this blog – that science is not all-encompassing. Very few of the most important decisions in our lives can be subject to a verifiable scientific analysis. And even if they could, they would not yield certainty.
I fall in love, for instance, and believe with passionate conviction that I will be happy with this person for the rest of my life. My parents do not agree and strongly counsel against my marrying this person. Whom should I trust? myself or my parents? Could I subject this decision to science?
Well, no. Science might be able to tell me the odds of such a marriage lasting for my life time. But science cannot study two unique individuals and predict more than the odds of our staying together. I might want to consider those odds, but it is impossible for science to tell me whether I would be among the majority or minority of possible outcomes. It is simply impossible for science to control all the variables that would determine the outcome and give me an absolute answer.
And we can multiply these situations. Should I take this job? should I have another child? should I buy this property? should I paint my bedroom wall another colour? There is no end to the questions science cannot answer for us.
I must – and do – trust my intuition, my sense of truth, of beauty, of love, for right. I “discern,” if you will, what others will do, what I think will happen if I make one or another choice. I rely on poetry (albeit, often enlightened by science) to choose what I will live for, what I hope I would be willing to die for.
But discernment isn’t necessarily right any more than science. Poetry can dazzle me with its magic. Music can send me marching off to war to kill my fellow human. Poetry in the widest sense can be blindingly wrong.
So neither poetry nor science are sources of absolute certainty. There are two things, however, that I value in science with passion.
The first is the astounding universe science is constantly unfolding. I read about the world revealed by quantum mechanics and it creates for me the same wordless astonishment and wonder that Mozart’s concerti give me. Or W.H.Auden’s poetry. Or last night’s spectacular sunset.
The second thing I revere about science is that by definition it is never finished. It never draws a double line and says “we know this without a shadow of a doubt and it will never change. It is an eternal truth.” My scientific conclusions are never given the absolute unquestioning acceptance of unchanging dogma by other scientists. The door is always open to think again. One can’t just come up with another idea, of course, and claim with convincing charisma that it is better than the old idea. Science insists that one submit one’s convictions to empirical tests and to the scrutiny of the scientific community.
No, science is not my religion. Science is not my poetry. But science is a wonderful teacher and a strict task master.
In the long run science never lets you forget that you might be wrong. Poetry doesn’t do that. Mozart doesn’t either.
Enough. I’m now going to listen to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. I think they are one of the most beautiful things on this earth.
I suppose it would be too simplistic to say that there really are only two kinds of older people – those who think the younger generation is getting smarter and those who think roughly the opposite. Though it does seem to me most of us have our unscientific opinions on the subject.
I don’t think the younger generation is getting dumber, but I have often thought that television programmes are.
But I may be seriously wrong. Tonight on prime time mainstream television, BBC is presenting an hour-long programme discussing whether reality is merely a philosophical construction. It really would be a stretch to call that dumbing down.
So I am now going to watch it.
I decided more than half a life time ago that I was going to opt for the position that an objective reality actually exists independently of my observing it.
I’m curious to revisit the question. I wonder if I’ve changed my mind.
Have you ever wondered why Darwin assumed that genes are selfish? that is, that the pursuit for survival is based on a notion of survival based entirely on the individual involved?
Darwin himself wrestled with the problem created for this position by inter-species altruism. The classic, but by no means singular example, are worker bees who are sterile but seem to work all their lives solely for the survival of the larger bee community. Modern evolutionary theorists reason that altruism is a means of ensuring the survival of ones own genes carried by ones closest relatives. A second-best choice, no doubt, to passing on ones own genes, but it does leave the basic mechanism of evolution in tact.
But I’ve begun to wonder if Darwin was influenced by his Christian beliefs. Darwin himself took a lot of schtick, not least from his deeply religious wife, when he finally published his work. But I know from personal experience that one can hold on to ideas that arise out of one’s earliest socialization even when I have thought I’ve abandoned the entire system.
This phenomenon, of course, if not unique to me. Science itself is shaped by its determination to replace supernatural explanations of natural events with empirical, observable, and testable causes. But the influence of that rejection of the supernatural has not altogether disappeared. Many of the mistakes we scientists have made reflect a fear of letting the supernatural in by the back door.
Psychologists, for instance, in order to make eliminate concept of the “soul” tried to develop theories of human behavior in which the mind was completely absent. Feelings and thoughts were at best epi-phenomenon, shadows of the real reality that could be seen and measured and subject to the laws of physics. Not all of psychology is completely free of this assumption even today.
What has got me thinking in particular about this selfish gene is the concept of sin. At the core of Christianity is the belief that mankind is basically sinful, that we need to be redeemed, and that was why Jesus died on the cross. But it is possible to give up any belief in God at all and still cling to this assumption that we are basically sinful?
Are we hiding from ourselves that we still cling to this belief by using the world “selfish” instead of “sinful”? Do we think selfish is somehow more secular, less spiritually contaminated, less influenced by this idea which is as old as far back as we can see into our own history? Even before Christianity, we tried to placate the gods, sacrificed our virgins, danced our rain dances, apparently reasoning that we had done something terribly wrong and that we were the reason things were so badly askew.
In the light of this radical idea, I’m wondering whether the survival instinct is primarily creative rather than primarily selfish.
The problem with answering this question, it seems to me, is that there is so much evidence to support either perspective. The media, of course, are hardly an unbiased source of data. Stories that make news are inevitably the ones about disasters and crime, about impending doom, greed and ignorance. Feel-good stories are add-ons.
How much unselfishness, how much creative impulse, how much caring and concern actually exist in our world? It may be overwhelming. Even the awful apparent evilness of a Hitler or Stalin might be interpreted as failed attempts to create a utopia rather than totally self-absorbed obsession with preserving their personal genetic legacy.
This idea is not entirely original to me. I got the kernel of the thought from Tony Equale’s book The Mystery of Matter, soon to be available on Amazon. Tony suggests that there is more reason to think genes are unselfish than selfish. I take responsibility, however, for the elaboration of this idea here. Equale may totally disagree.
I’m not initially inclined to trust ideas that are too optimistic. But the more I think about it, the less outlandish the possibility that genes are more creative than selfish seems it might be.
I think I’m beginning to understand why so many people don’t believe anything we are told – whether it’s by governments or the media or science or religious leaders.
Every single one of these institutions have claimed to be presenting “facts,” when far more often it is opinion, spin, best guess, doctrine, a mistake, ignorance, or sheer self-serving lies.
If we could just put our faith in the validity of something it would at least give us something firm to hold onto. But that’s not on offer.
Even science and scientists themselves often offer more than they have a right to claim. Scientific facts are not infallible, are not eternal truths, and if scientists admitted this more often, they may appear more credible.
If scientists were more candid about the nature of scientific “facts,” it may be more of a challenge for people to argue that the universe is no more than ten thousand years old, that the dinosaurs did not die out 65 million years ago, or that evolution is a myth concocted by the Communists. Because the argument would not be based on “eternal truth” but on reasonable conclusions based on empirical evidence.
For instance, most scientists in the mid-19th century were convinced that our earth was about 5,000 years old at the most. Less than 150 years ago, physicists, applying the laws of thermodynamics, were sure that the sun could not burn more than 40 million years and that the earth would soon cool and die with the already-waning sun. It was not until 1956 that the true age of the solar system was known. It was barely more than ten years ago that scientists realized that the entire universe is just over 13 billion years old. Not several thousand. Or several hundred thousand years. Or even several million years, as they had previously thought.
Being a little more candid that scientific facts change with the evidence available to us might even make it more difficult not to take global warming seriously.
In other words, it might make our suspicions are little less superstitious and a little more realistic.
Although I am well aware that the influence of what we think can have a significant influence, either positive or negative, on our physical well-being, I am not a believer in homoeopathy or in most alternative medicines that aren’t backed up by some respectable research.
So it required some mental gymnastics on my part when I read that research showing that regular doses of glucosamide and chondriton have little effect in reducing joint pain. Because I’ve been taking it for over a year and have noticed a significant difference.
So am I kidding myself at the cost of several hundred dollars worth of supplements every year? Is this merely a placebo effect that I could perhaps purchase more cheaply?
Ah well, I’m not giving up that easily.
The first thing I did was to read the original research in the British Medical Journal. I found that the average dose given to the experimental subjects was on average half the supplement dose I take. Somewhere several years ago I’d read not to expect any effects except from these relatively large dosages – that research already showed that smaller quantities don’t work.
Besides that, I take all research results about supplements, medicines, and nutrition as no more than reasonable working hypotheses that need to be tested on the individual whatever the experts say. This is because of the nature of research, which works like roughly this:
Three groups are compared – one being treated with the real thing, one being given what they think is the real thing but is really a placebo, and one given nothing at all. If at the end of the treatment period, there are statistically significant differences among the groups (that is, differences that were probably not random), the researches conclude that it is reasonable to conclude that the “real thing” (ie: the experimental variable, whatever it was) had an independent effect.
that does not mean that the “real thing” worked for everybody. It just means it worked for more people or worked better than either the placebo or no treatment at all. But there very well may have been people in the treatment group who derived no benefits at all.
And that is why I always treat research results as no more than “informed hypotheses” which have to be tested out on each individual even after extensive research has been done.
And it’s also why treatments in which no statistical differences were found among the groups who received “the real thing,” the placebo, and nothing at all might still be effective for some people.
I suspect in my case, my joint pain is radically reduced because I’m taking a larger than average dose.
But it might all be in my head.
So I’m going to stop taking the supplements for the next month and see what happens.
If my joints start aching again, I’m going back on the supplements.
Even if it is all in my head.
If it works, that’s good enough for me.
Yesterday, a young television journalist reported on the body of a polar bear that had been washed up on the shore of Cornwall. It turned out to be rather embarrassing though because the polar bear was a cow. I mean, everybody knows that polar bears live thousands of miles away from Cornwall.
On the other hand, the BBC is running a programme this evening on the tigers who are living in the Himalayas thousands of feet above the tree line. But everybody knows tigers don’t live 13,000 feet up the Himalaya mountains.
But they do.
The problem with needing to be right – at least it was for me – was that one can’t think the unthinkable or the ridiculous. Needing to come up with sensible right answer severely limits creativity.
So reporting on polar bears in Cornwall might be embarrassing. But I think that reporter has potential to discover something fantastic.
Besides, it does look a little like a polar bear, doesn’t it?
For all our intelligence, it’s amazing how often we humans have trouble recognizing it:
All of which has made me wonder why as a child I thought my Dad was so smart and that women, including my rather gifted mother, weren’t.
One reason, of course, was the role of women in a traditional Catholic household in mid-20th century America. Women were expected to stay at home and take care of the children, do the cooking, keep the house clean, and submit to their husbands. The men were supposed to go out and hunt – err, I mean, earn a living.
But in my case there was another reason. Dad treated all children who could at least walk and talk as if they were adults. He talked to us like adults, he reasoned with us like adults, he explained things to us as if we were adults. That often made him very hard to understand.
My mother, on the other hand, had a gift for explaining things in terms we could understand. She understood how children thought, and she herself had an ego that was strong enough not to need to make us think she was smart. What she wanted was for us to think we were smart. She was awfully good at making hard things seem easy and giving us the confidence to believe we could do them.
I didn’t understand that. I just thought she wasn’t as smart as my Dad.
But I think she was. She was just smart different.
The interesting post script to this is that, although I have eight younger sibs and am a cognitive developmental psychologist who has written books and articles about how children’s thinking develops, I’m much more like my Dad. I talk to children as if they were adults.
I don’t do it out of principle.
I just can’t do what my mother could.
When it’s not in my field of psychology, I often find it difficult to know whether a scientist sounds off the wall because his/her thinking is so far brilliant, so far ahead of mine that I can barely grasp it or because s/he is simply kooky.
Which is why I’ve been wondering lately about the concept of emergence. I’d begun to get a little suspicious about it, and I wanted to know if it belonged in the same category as Intelligent Design or if it was a legitimate concept within the mainstream. Kauffman in his book Reinventing the Sacred argues that emergent phenomenon cannot be predicted using the scientific method and equates emergence with creativity.
Data supporting the failure of science to predict emergent phenomena is quite solid and broadly accepted. I first began to wonder, though, when Kauffman’s suggested that we might equate this emergence or intrinsic creativity with the Sacred. Even with God. I knew that was a step too far for me, but scientists are always going beyond the limits of the proven. If they didn’t, we’d never have any hypotheses, no break through theories. So that is fine.
I really started to question, though, when I discovered that many writers are using the concept of emergence as that elusive question which so many believers are looking for, that question to which the only possible answer is God.
So although I know it’s hardly a return to the original sources, I asked Wikipedia about emergence.
Art by Holly Werner
It is, indeed, a highly respectable idea that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and does indeed describe phenomena from physics to psychology that are greater or different than the simply sum of its parts. At the moment it seems to be an aspect of mystery in the universe which is attracting particular attention.
Some people want to find God in the universe. Some people don’t. I’m in the Don’t group. For me adding God doesn’t elevate the universe but downgrades it. I remember as a young teenager saying that I didn’t want someone to love me because I was made “in the image and likeness of God.” I wanted them to love me because they loved me.
And now I sort of feel that way about the universe too. It’s fantastic. It’s incredible. It constantly brings me to a state of stunned awe.
I’m sure it isn’t true for everybody, but for me, adding God flattens everything, it reduces it. Almost as if there nothing particularly impressive to notice about the universe in its own right.
I can see where Plato was coming from with his world of perfect forms and I understand how the Church transformed that to a supernatural world presiding over this one. But I can see why Buddha never added God to his world view.
I’m opting for belonging 100% in this universe.
That’s awesome enough.
Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.
Art is knowing which ones to keep.
The first commercial gum was made in 1871, after Thomas Adams (1818-1905) failed to make car tires from the same ingredients.
I was astonished to read recently that a study of mainstream philosophers in America and Britain found that 39% believe in a Platonic world of numbers. That is, they believe, as Plato did, that abstract objects have a real existence independent of our minds.
This is not the supernatural Christianized Platonic world of heaven and hell, angels and devils, saints and sinners. For one thing 93% of these philosophers don’t believe in God. Nor does it seem to be one of the many universes posited by string theory of physicists. The Platonic world they are talking about, from what I understand, is much closer to the original world as Plato conceived it in his attempt to answer the question “How do we know what we know?”
I am dumbfounded by this statistic. Almost 40% of the philosophers in our colleges and universities think there is another real world of abstract objects.
I’m finding that understanding philosophical concepts can be pretty hard work. But I’m fascinated to know the reasoning used by these Platonist believers. They are not religious fanatics. They are not uneducated air-heads. Most of them almost certainly are both highly intelligent and highly educated.
So what is their reasoning? 4 out of every 10 of our philosophers isn’t an inconsequential number. They might not be right, but it’s too big a number to dismiss outright as simply off the wall.
I don’t feel I can dismiss this idea as crazy until I at least understand why it doesn’t look that way to so many informed, smart people.
Ernst Tugendhat, a German philosopher, says he thinks that, although we need to believe in God, we can no longer do so in the light of modern science without fooling ourselves. (http://www.signandsight.com/features/1107.html)
I’m extremely uncomfortable with this view. I think Tugendhat is asking the question the wrong way around.
Instead of suggesting that we are in a cleft stick because we need to believe in a god that does not exist, I think we should ask what needs our various constructions of god are being used to meet. I think we will discover that our concepts of god change quite radically, depending on the purposes we are using god for. Sometimes these purposes are generous and noble, sometimes they are ignoble and self-serving, sometimes they are intellectual, sometimes cultural, sometimes terrifyingly pathological.
Some people use god as the answer to the question of how the universe came into being and is the kind of mystery that it is. This god might be highly impersonal, a force that initially created the universe which is now left to its own devices. It might still be a god that inspires awe, but not a god who intervenes with our lives, who answers our prayers, or who is comprehensible in human terms.
Sometimes god is the answer to our desire to know what happens after we die. Do we simply return to the handful of star dust from which we were originally formed? or does something of ourselves continue beyond death? and if it does, what is it? The god who answers these questions is often more personal, rewarding those who have lived good lives, punishing those who don’t. Heaven and hell are the usual Christian version of this reward or punishment. Reincarnation for those not yet ready for nirvana is another alternative.
Then there is the more immediate question of whether life has a purpose, has any meaning beyond our sheer existence. Am I supposed to accomplish something during my time on earth, or am I simply part of an inexorable mill through which I am processed for some short time? Sometimes the god who is constructed to give us purpose is a loving god, sometimes a vindictive, angry, punishing god. This god may be singular or plural, beyond human understanding or embarrassingly human, belong to all people or the sole possession of only a single peoples.
These punishing and rewarding god are the ones most often used to increase group cohesiveness and exercise power and control. They are the gods often called upon during social and political conflicts, and are used as justifications for trying to control, punish and even kill those who do not submit to the god associated with the most powerful group. This is the concept of god, I think, which history shows has been used for the most self-serving and abusive purposes. For the leaders within these groups, aligning oneself with an all-powerful god and even claiming to be a god’s representative adds an invincible authority to their commands. For every follower, this god is a great escape from insignificance or failure.
I am a psychologist who believes that self-knowledge is by far the hardest knowledge to acquire. We will go to the most extraordinary lengths to protect ourselves from seeing our own self-serving motives, however glaringly obvious these motives may sometimes be to others. And so I think insights into the real needs that may be met by our concepts of god are hard-earned.
And indeed, our “god” may change quite dramatically during our lives. In my youth, I believed in a god that was going to give my life a great purpose and importance. Now I find the attempt to control the behavior – of myself or of others, but especially of children – with threats of heaven or hell highly unacceptable. Fundamentalist religions in clear contradiction of modern science are equally unbelievable for me. Preaching that God causes earthquakes and tsunamis as punishment for our sins simply seems ridiculous whatever concomitant good its followers may achieve.
This is why I would not ask if we need to believe in god. “God” is too amorphous a concept in this context. I would ask instead what needs we have that we use our concepts of “god” to meet.
I was sitting on the plane from London to Boston last week next to a young woman in her early twenties whose henna-decorated hands and vegetarian meal suggested she was flying from India. I asked her if she was coming or going home.
“Ah,” she said, “that’s the question.”
She said that she’d grown up in India where everything was done for her – her bed made, meals cooked, laundry and cleaning done. There were gardeners and drivers and cooks and maids.
“But I wanted to do these things for myself,” she said.
So she looked around the world and decided that her best option for living her own independent life was in the United States. She applied to and was accepted to complete her masters in IT, and then got a job working for a company who has procured her a visa for three years.
And now I don’t know where home is, she said. She’d been visiting her family for several weeks in India where she grew up, but after about a week she said she was anxious to get back home – and home was the United States.
I know, I said. Home will never be the same thing again. Where you grew up will feel less and less where you belong, and where you are will always never quite have the unquestioned familiarity that our first home has.
I thought about this woman as I was flying back to England. I’d had a wonderful time visiting the place where I grew up. But I didn’t belong there any more. But much as I love living in Cambridge, part of what I love is that frisson that comes from a place that is always just a little new, just a little challenging, a little surprising.
And I thought too about her desire to live her own life. Not to have everything done for her. She wanted to take charge of her own life – even in the most prosaic things. When she said she wanted to do things for herself, she started the list with doing her own cooking and cleaning.
What is that drive in some people to live their own lives whose impetus is so strong that they will leave home and even more to another country to find it?
It’s something deep in the human spirit, I think.
Maybe it’s why we even might make it to colonize another planet someday.
A recent survey of analytical philosophers who are usually the type that teach in most University departments in English-speaking countries has revealed some surprising beliefs among them:
I guess some of the questions I’ve been asking lately aren’t so dumb.
Though whether some of my answers can be judged with equal charity is still open to debate.
I was quite young – well, young by my standards now – when I realized I had a problem with God because of the problem of evil. It seemed to me that suffering and injustice suggested either that God was not as powerful as he was supposed to be, that he didn’t care, or that there wasn’t a God at all.
My problem now is that eliminating God from the equation doesn’t solve the problem of evil. I still don’t know what to make of what looks like so much meaningless, unjustified destructive suffering.
Buddha said what looks like evil to us is really incompleteness – it is the manifestation of which is unfinished.
Another alternative is that suffering and injustice do not pose a problem because the universe simply follows the immutable laws of physics. “Evil” is no more a problem than why ice melts or why apples fall off the tree. The laws of nature are impersonal and inexorable and suffering results the way soft things are crushed beneath the weight of a heavy stone rolling down the mountain.
I do not know if I cannot accept this bleak alternative because I lack courage. Or is it because my sense is based on some authentic insight that a place as incredible as the universe is not meaningless.
I am inclined to think, though, that it is we who must give it meaning. It’s not just already out there ready made for us to somehow find.
Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
There is a problem posed by quantum physics called entanglement. The problem is that quantum particles sometimes seem to link in such a way that a change in one particle instantaneously affects its partner particle, even if the two particles are separated by millions of miles.
How can this be? Nobody knows including the great geniuses of physics. But all the observations made by scientists seem to come up with this seemingly-impossible fact.
Here are the hypotheses recently summarized in an article in the May 2010 edition of Scientific American of the various solutions offered to this extraordinary puzzle:
1. The properties of quantum particles are not real: they only exist in our perception of them. That implies that nothing is real outside our own perceptions. This is a problem because the assumption that the objective world actually exists outside our minds is a basic assumption of science. Not to mention a basic assumption made by most of us during our saner moments.
2. The scientists studying this problem do not have free will, but are predetermined by some unknown forces to study only those aspects of the problem that suggest these baffling results. This alternative is no more palatable than the first, since it means that what we observe is determined not by us or by the nature of things but by some, again unknown, force, that controls what we do and what we observe.
3. The third alternative is that some particles travel faster than the speed of light – at least ten million times faster than the speed of light. This also violates a fundamental scientific principle underlying our understanding of the universe.
So none of the possibilities seem hugely convincing.
Now I know this is simple-minded of me, but it does seem to me that there is a 4th possibility. I realize it is almost unthinkable and scientists may rather concede free will rather than consider this preposterous alternative.
But don’t you think there is at least a distant chance that the observations of scientists are distorted? Trapped here on Earth as we are, is it not possible that our observations are circumscribed by the nature of our senses and the limits of space and time within which we exist?
I think the problem just might be our limited perspectives.
But I guess that’s why I call this blog The Other I.
I think there is always another point of view that can change everything.
With science, you’ve go to enjoy swimming in this unknowingness — you never get to the bottom of things.
Tim Hunt, Biologist and Nobel Laureate
I agree. But I wouldn’t limit the pool of unknowingness to science. It’s what life looks like to me.
I have a constant dialogue with myself. But in truth I do not have anything to say to my audience.
Arvo Pärt, Estonian composer
OK, OK: I’m considering it!
All of us make assumptions in our thinking that often seem so obvious and reasonable that we are not even aware that they are completely beyond proof.
In the Western world, we assume, for instance, that the world of objects we experience when we are awake exists independently of our experience of them. And we assume that other people who are not blind or deaf or in some other way suffering from sensory incapacity can experience them too. So I believe the desk at which I am sitting is a real desk and if you were here, you would see it too.
But how do I know that for sure? how do I know that this desk is not simply a figment of my imagination? how do I know that what I think of my memory of my entire day isn’t a dream? Occasionally, what I have thought was real has turned out to be a dream, and when I wake up I sometimes as not sure whether I dreamed something or actually experienced it when I was awake.
Actually, there is no way I can prove beyond doubt that the world outside my mind is objectively real. But since most of the time, everybody else seems to behave as if they are experiencing the same world I am, and since everybody else seems to believe without question that that world is objectively real, so do I. As does almost everybody else everywhere in the world most of the time.
But most of the time isn’t all the time, and occasionally there are personal disagreements. Sometimes these disagreements are even between entire cultures.
When our consciousness is altered through illness, drugs, lack of sleep, stress, or because of the very nature of our brains, or because the society within which we live interprets experiences in a particular way, we sometimes do not agree about what is real.
For instance, hallucinations are terrifyingly real for someone seeing it. Voices have directed people to comment acts as irrational as murder, suicide, and impossible feats like floating or flying unaided. Similarly, peoples from some cultures today believe that their dreams reflect visits from real people. I remember one of my foreign students who could not get his mind around a Freudian interpretation of dreams because he did not believe, as we do in the west, that dreams are sole creations of the dreamer. For him, the people in his dreams really were talking to him. They were real, even those who had died.
If we start out with different basic assumptions about what is objectively real and what is not, we are going to have a great deal of trouble understanding each other until we recognize that we are each starting from a different place.
As I said, most of us most of the time accept the objective existence of the world.
But there are other, equally important assumptions, about which we are not so generally agreed. And some of the most divisive, if often unrecognized, differences in our starting assumptions are between science and various religious views.
Is there, for instance, a supernatural world which has both the power and the desire to directly influence what happens in this natural world?
Before you start spluttering that the answer is obvious, pause a moment. Neither position might be quite as ridiculous as you might first think.
Or perhaps more accurately I should say that although I have made up my own mind about the question, people who disagree with me no longer seem to me to be quite so obviously wrong-headed as I once thought.
Why this is so will be the subject of my next post. Unless the volcanic ash currently emanating from for the volcanic eruption in Iceland does more than simply ground every single commercial flight in Britain and halt flights throughout all of Europe. All of which is happening now.
Unless, of course, all this is a figment of my imagination.
I’ve been intrigued by the idea suggested in a recent post on Thinking Makes It So that evolution never discovered the wheel.
Well, we did, but the discovery isn’t passed down in our genes.
When so much of what we discover or even “invent” are adaptations or copies of what has already been invented by evolution, I find it astonishing to think that something as useful as the wheel hasn’t made it into the genetic pool.
I’m now trying to think if there is anything else that is quite so critical that only we have come up with. The rectangle might also be unique to us, but somehow it doesn’t seem to have quite the same potential as the wheel.
And we didn’t come up with it much more than six thousand years ago.
When I was about three, I remember telling my older brother that the inside of my eyelids had strips of color on them. How he got to know these things with a mere year more of experience than I, I don’t know, but he told me this wasn’t so. (He’s also the one who told me there wasn’t a Santa Claus, and that I couldn’t be a man when I grew up.) I said I knew my eyelids were colored on the inside because I could see the colors when I closed my eyes and pressed on my eyes.
In other words, I had empirical evidence to support my conclusion. My brother offered me an alternative explanation for the colors I was seeing, which in a slightly more sophisticated form is the one I’ve accepted ever since.
I’m telling this story because it illustrates the process by which we humans interpret our world. That is, we have an experience. That experience itself is completely and inescapably private. We can’t compare our experiences directly with anybody else’s, nor can anybody from the outside tell us that we did or did not experience it. We are the only ones who can know directly what we experience – whether we hear a sound, see an object, distinguish a color, feel a pain. And if we can’t see a shape or color or hear a sound, no one can ever communicate to us exactly what it’s like.
I myself do not have depth vision, for instance. I know I’m missing something but I cannot imagine what the world looks like to people with normal vision. Similarly, people who have been deaf all their lives cannot know what a song sounds like, nor can people who can’t distinguish between green and red know what those colors look like to the rest of us.
What we can do, however, is to describe what it is we hear/see/feel/experience to others and compare their description of their private experience with ours. That’s the first thing – and it is not a coincidence that this is the first thing scientists do when they are presenting their empirical findings to other scientists.
The second thing we can do is to compare our interpretations of our experiences. My brother didn’t deny that I saw colors when I closed my eyes; what he gave me was a different interpretation of what the colors meant. In other words, he offered me a different theory to explain my data.
We “validate” our experiences like this all the time. We ask others “Do you hear that?” “Can you see that?” “Do you remember when?” In extreme cases, it’s how we decide if we are hallucinating or dreaming or actually responding to an external event.
In science, this process is usually accomplished by replicating the findings. If scientists can’t replicate the results a scientist says he has found, then the data is questionable. The assumption is that some unknown error occurred or there is outright fraud involved. If the results are replicated, then the discussion moves to the forum of interpretation: do these particular observations support Theory A or Theory B or a new theory altogether?
When the majority of scientists believe that the bulk of the data supports one theory rather than another it tends to be accepted as a solid universal finding. Gravity explains, for instance, why we don’t fall off the planet, or the stars don’t fall down. Or smoking increases the chances of getting lung cancer, and obesity increases the chances of developing Type II diabetes.
But just as my interpretation of the colors I saw when I closed my eyes changed, so too theories that may for very long periods be accepted as proven might be discarded. Scientists now do not think gravity is the full explanation of what is holding the universe in place. And doctors today are beginning to think that perhaps obesity is not the cause of Type II diabetes.
Okay, this is how we validate our interpretations of empirical events. Our experiences themselves do not change, but our interpretations of them often do. Can – and do – we use a similar process to validate our experiences of beauty? of truth? of love?
I think we do. But more on that in another post – if there are any readers still hearty enough to survive the onslaught of my treatise on the Psychology of Knowing.
I listened to a programme on two 20th century musical composers this evening – Henryk Gorecki from Poland and Arvo Part from Estonia. I’d never heard of either of them before, but since I’m half Polish, I expected to prefer Gorecki. I was surprised that it was Part’s music that resonated.
Part (unlike a talkative Gorecki) is an extremely shy man who does not give interviews easily. But he said one thing over which I have been puzzling. He was a mature composer before he ever heard Gregorian chant. But, he said, when he listened to it for the first time he was stunned. “I knew,” he said, “that this was the truth.”
Okay, what do we mean when we say something like music is true? It’s not what my mother meant when she said George Washington was telling the truth when he admitted he’d chopped down the tree. It’s not what mathematicians mean when they it’s true that 2+2=4. It’s not what a historian means when he says something is true. It’s not even what believers mean when they say scripture is true.
Yet, we do somehow know that music is a language. We know that music can communicate. So music must be able to say something that is true.
I’ve been asking myself – and others – this question for some time now. I know how we test the validity of scientific theories. But how do we test the validity of music or art or poetry or sculpture or literature?
I asked a musician this question recently. He gave me a long silent look which I recognized as the look I give when someone asks me a question and I think “I don’t know where to begin; I think you need to read several books, or take several courses, or live several decades more before I can begin to explain. You’re starting out with all the wrong assumptions.”
Then he said that it was not in understanding the nuts and bolts – how chords were used or different rhythms or instruments were combined. Finally he said “You listen. Stop trying to analyze it. Just listen. Eventually you might just know whether it’s true, or whether it’s fake.”
So this is what I think he meant and what I’m beginning to think I also think:
There are some things that we apprehend directly. I don’t mean necessarily immediately, but I mean without need for any additional confirmation. Like seeing the color green, for instance. I don’t need to analyze the light spectrum emanating from an object to confirm that what I am perceiving is green. I apprehend it directly. Could I be wrong? Yes, I could be color blind. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are some things I apprehend directly, that I do not need to analyze or prove further in order to know. I might, on rare occasions, do some further tests to find out if this really is green or some trick of the light. But it is not the test results that communicate to me what green is. It’s the seeing the green. And without that, all the test results in the world cannot communicate to me what green looks like.
I think the arts are very much like that. We apprehend them directly. We recognize directly that they are beautiful or truthful or profound. Yes, the arts can also be analyzed – what century they reflect, who they were influenced by, how they broke with tradition or reworked some period. These things are useful and often may increase our appreciation of the intrinsic value of the work. But they are not the same thing and do not themselves constitute that immediate response which recognizes beauty or truth.
Can we be wrong in what we apprehend? of course. We can mistake tatty tawdry trash for great art. We can be artistically “color-blind” or “tone-deaf” in some areas, unable to see or hear the beauty that is there. And we can learn, as we mature, to recognize truth in ways that as children we do not.
But in the end, I think we know that art is great because many people recognize it as great. Because we look at it, listen to it, and know directly that it is true.
On another day I will try to explain why I think the answer to this question matters. At least to people like me who seem compelled to analyze absolutely everything. (Well, half of me is Polish. But the other half is German.)
I have many people to thank for their thoughts on this question, most recently the latest posts on the blog Thinking Makes It So. My conclusions, however, are nobody’s responsibility but my own. And I unreservedly reserve the right to change my mind.