The Other I

October 9, 2014

My absurd idea

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.

Albert Einstein

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.




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