Brain Pickings

Author Archive

24 JUNE, 2015

Simone Weil on Science, Quantum Theory, and Our Spiritual Values

By:

“When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”

Many decades before Rebecca Goldstein, one of the most compelling philosophers and scientific thinkers of our time, examined how Einstein and Gödel’s work on relativity rattled our understanding of existence, her twentieth-century counterpart — the brilliant French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — probed the subject with extraordinary intellectual elegance in an invigorating essay titled “Reflections on Quantum Theory.” Originally written the year before Weil’s death and later included in the out-of-print posthumous 1968 collection On Science, Necessity and the Love of God (public library), the essay considers how the advent of two theories — relativity (“a very simple theory, so long as one does not try to understand it”) and quantum mechanics — ripped our understanding of the world asunder, opening up a massive abyss between “science as it had been understood ever since ancient Greece” and modern science.

After a swift primer on the evolution of science from Galileo and Newton to Einstein and Planck, Weil turns to the key culprit in this major rift between classical and contemporary science — our increasing and, she admonishes, increasingly dangerous reliance on mathematical expression as the most accurate expression of reality, flattening and making artificially linear the dimensional and messy relationships of which reality itself is woven:

What makes the abyss between twentieth-century science and that of previous centuries is the different role of algebra. In physics algebra was at first simply a process for summarizing the relations, established by reasoning based on experiment, between the ideas of physics; an extremely convenient process for the numerical calculations necessary for their verification and application. But its role has continually increased in importance until finally, whereas algebra was once the auxiliary language and words the essential one, it is now exactly the other way round. There are even some physicists who tend to make algebra the sole language, or almost, so that in the end, an unattainable end of course, there would be nothing except figures derived form experimental measurements, and letters, combined in formulae. Now, ordinary language and algebraic language are not subject to the same logical requirement; relations between ideas are not fully represented by relations between letters; and, in particular, incompatible assertions may have equational equivalents which are by no means incompatible. When some relations between ideas have been translated into algebra and the formulae have been manipulated solely according to the numerical data of the experiment and the laws proper to algebra, results may be obtained which, when retranslated into spoken language, are a violent contradiction of common sense.

Weil argues that this creates an incomplete and, in its incompleteness, illusory representation of reality — even when it bisects the planes of mathematical data and common sense, such science leaves out the unquantifiable layer of meaning:

If the algebra of physicists gives the impression of profundity it is because it is entirely flat; the third dimension of thought is missing.

That third dimension is that of meaning — one concerned with notions like “the human soul, freedom, consciousness, the reality of the external world.” (Three decades later, Hannah Arendt — another of the twentieth century’s most piercing and significant minds — would memorably contemplate the crucial difference between truth and meaning, the former being the material of science and the latter of philosophy.)

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilbert, an allegorical primer on quantum mechanics inspired by 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But most perilous of all, Weil argues, is our tendency to mistake the findings of science for objectivity and capital-T Truth, forgetting that it is scientists who make science — and scientists are human, a product of their time, beholden to their era’s values and to their own subjective impressions of truth. She cautions:

Scientific theories pass away as men’s fashions did in the seventeenth century; the Louis XIII style of dress disappeared when the last of the old men who had been young during Louis XIII’s reign were dead… Science is voiceless; it is the scientists who talk. And what they say is certainly not independent of time.

Weil argues that much of the subjectivity, which robs science of the necessary largeness in explaining the world in its full dimensions, is due to a certain scientific tribalism — scientists’ tendency to confine themselves to small groups that study only small subsets of the larger whole, with little or no cross-pollination between these tribes:

The villagers seldom leave the village; many scientists have limited and poorly cultivated minds apart from their specialty or, if a scientist is interested in something outside his specific work, it is very unusual for him to relate that interest, in his mind, with his interest in science. The inhabitants of the village are studious, brilliant, exceptionally gifted; but all the same, up to an age when mind and character are for the most part already formed, they are lycée students among the other and are taught from mediocre textbooks. No one has ever been particularly concerned to develop their critical spirit. At no point in their lives are they specifically trained to put the pure love of truth above other motives… Among the inhabitants of the village, as among all men, this love is to be found, mixed in varying proportions with the other motives — among them the taste for precision and work properly done, and the desire to be talked about, and greed for money, consideration, fame, honors, titles, and also antipathies and jealousies and friendships. This village, like all other villages, is composed of average humanity, with a few excesses above and below.

Thus, Weil argues, the capital-T truth science purports to produce is merely the average of the various subjectivities of the villagers:

As elsewhere, the strife of generations and individuals results at any given moment in an average opinion. The state of science at a given moment is nothing else but this; it is the average opinion of the village of scientists… As for the scientists themselves, they are naturally the first to pass of their own opinions as if they were deliverances of an oracle, for which they have no responsibility and cannot be called to account. This pretension is intolerable, because it is not legitimate. There is no oracle, but only the opinions of scientists, who are men. They affirm what they believe they ought to affirm, and they are right to do so; but they themselves are the responsible authors of all their affirmations and are accountable for them.

Art adapted from Alice and Martin Provensen's vintage pop-up book about the life of Leonardo. Click image for more.

What modern scientists are most accountable for, Weil argues, is the rupture with classical science, which was better integrated with philosophy:

What is disastrous is not the rejection of classical science but the way in which it has been rejected. It wrongly believed it could progress indefinitely, and it ran into a dead end about the year 1900; but scientists failed to stop at the same time in order to contemplate and reflect upon the barrier, they did not try to describe and define it and, having taken it into account, to draw some general conclusions form it; instead, they rushed violently past it, leaving classical science behind them. And why should we be surprised at this? For are they not paid to forge continually ahead? Nobody advances in his career, or in reputation, or gets a Nobel Prize, by standing still. To cease voluntarily from forging ahead, any brilliantly gifted scientist would need to be a sort of saint or hero, and why should he be a saint or hero?

What Weil is essentially championing is a necessary balance between progress and pause for reflection — something John Dewey had memorably advocated decades earlier. Having forgone that, she argues, modern scientists removed themselves from the big-picture questions of meaning by gradually fragmenting science into smaller and smaller units of measurable truth.

For a contemporary parallel, we need not look further than journalism and the media industry, which in their insatiable hunger for progress along flawed metrics like pageviews have reduced the profession’s true social currency — substantive writing that elucidates meaning — to “content,” which implies the very thing thing it purveys: meaningless filler material to stick between advertising. In her eternal prescience, Susan Sontag — who famously wrote that “anything from Simone Weil’s pen is worth reading” — presaged this modern epidemic half a century ago, writing in 1964: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” Where modern scientists erred, Weil argues, is in lurching forward with the content of science without stepping back to see the thing at all — the thing being the ultimate subject of their study, the nature of reality itself.

But make no mistake — severe as Weil’s critique may be, it is the opposite of anti-scientific: At its heart is not an assault on science but a passionate plea for protecting its integrity and ensuring its survival for generations to come. She considers the root of the problem:

Science, like every effort of thought, consists in interpreting experience… It is a mistake to think that experiment is of any use for this purpose, because all human thought, including beliefs which appear completely absurd, is experimental and claims to be based on and confirmed by experience… All thought is an effort of interpretation of experience, and experience provides neither model nor rule nor criterion for the interpretation; it provides the data of problems but not a way of solving or even of formulating them. This effort requires, like all other efforts, to be oriented towards something; all human effort is oriented and when man is not going in any direction he remains motionless. He cannot do without values. For all theoretical study the name of value is truth. It is impossible, no doubt, for men of flesh and blood in this world to have any representation of truth which is not defective; but they must have on — an imperfect image of the non-representable truth which we once saw, as Plato says, beyond the sky.

Illustration from Ralph Steadman's 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Classical scientists, Weil argues, had an imperfect representation of scientific truth — but they had one. She proposes a somewhat improbable and, in its imaginative improbability, a rather poetic solution — a mandatory period of pause for reflection amid science’s galloping progress:

A compulsory halt would … force scientists to try to recapitulate and revise… to make an honest survey of axioms, postulates, definitions, hypotheses, and principles, without omitting those which are implied in experimental technique itself, such as the use of the balance. Such a work would perhaps make science a field of knowledge, by revealing clearly the difficulties, contradictions, and impossibilities which today are hurriedly concealed under solutions behind which the intelligence can discern nothing. But it is a work which should be begun soon. Otherwise the arrest of science might lead, not to a renewal but to the disappearance of the scientific spirit throughout the whole world for several centuries, as happened after the Roman Empire had killed the science of Greece.

Weil argues that this compulsive concealment of the difficulties inherent to science, coupled with increasing specialization of the different villages, has ensured that “the layman cannot understand anything about science and that scientists themselves are laymen outside their own special departments.” Granted, with the hindsight of more than seven decades, we can perhaps exhale with a certain grateful awareness that this is no longer the case — if anything, we can even wonder whether the greatest scientific development of the twentieth century isn’t any particular theory or branch of science but the rise of science communication, which continues to popularize science among said “laymen,” increasingly inviting all of us to understand — and, in the case of citizen science, to contribute to — the conquest of truth.

And yet such cultural developments notwithstanding, Weil’s central charge rings just as true today:

In the present crisis there is something compromised which is infinitely more precious even than science; it is the idea of truth… So soon as truth disappears, utility at once takes its place, because man always directs his effort toward some good or other. Thus utility becomes something which the intelligence is no longer entitled to define or to judge, but only to serve. From being the arbiter, intelligence becomes the servant, and it gets its orders from the desires. And, further, public opinion then replaces conscience as sovereign mistress of thoughts, because man always submits his thoughts to some higher control, which is superior either in value or else in power. That is where we are today. Everything is oriented towards utility, which nobody thinks of defining; public opinion reigns supreme, in the village of scientists as in the great nations. It is as though we had returned to the age of Protagoras and the Sophists, the age when the art of persuasion — whose modern equivalent is advertising slogans, publicity, propaganda meetings, the press, the cinema, the radio — took the place of thought.

[…]

The official guardians of spiritual values have allowed them to decay… In the period of sorrow and humiliation which we have already entered and which will perhaps be a very long one, our only hope of recovering some day what we lack is to feel with our whole soul how well-merited our misfortune is… When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?

How very pregnant with poignancy this final remark is, for in the decades since Weil penned her lament, culture has become even more subservient to commerce. In fact, this very book — a packet of some of the most luminous, intellectually exhilarating, and spiritually stimulating thinking of the past century — is deeply out of print, presumably because at some point publishers determined there wasn’t enough of a “market” for these ideas outside the few of us willing to pay exorbitant prices for the handful of surviving copies.

Should you be so lucky as to find one such precious copy of On Science, Necessity and the Love of God — your local library might help — you will find yourself at once infinitely gladdened by Weil’s enduring ideas and infinitely saddened by the self-fulfilling prophecy embedded in this particular one. Complement it with Weil on how to make use of our suffering and how to be a complete human being.

Donating = Loving

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





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





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

24 JUNE, 2015

The John Lennon Sketchbook: A Weird and Wonderful Vintage Animated Film About the Beloved Beatle’s Life, Music, and Philosophy

By:

Quips and prophecies in vibrant color.

In 1986, seventeen years after Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s animated conversation about love and six years after the beloved Beatle’s assassination, Ono commissioned independent animator John Canemaker to create a short animated film based on Lennon’s drawings, music, and interviews. Given her penchant for the intersection of art and philosophy, Lennon’s own quirky illustrations, and the odd fact that the couple’s love began in visual poetry long before they met, it was the perfect medium for commemoration.

Titled The John Lennon Sketchbook, the befittingly weird and wonderful film — a vibrant testament to our long cultural history of anthropomorphizing animals to illuminate the human experience — begins with Lennon’s iconic “Imagine,” features Ono’s song “The King of the Zoo,” and weaves in chillingly prophetic conversations from the limited-edition 1980 LP Heart Play: Unfinished Dialogue, the first interview album of Lennon and Ono’s interviews after the breakup of The Beatles and the second posthumously released Lennon record.

Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are great examples of fantastic nonviolents who died violently. I can never work that out — we’re pacifists, but I’m not sure what it means when you’re such a pacifist that you get shot. I can never understand that.

Exactly twenty years later, Canemaker received an Academy Award for his animated short film The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation.

Complement with The Beatles’ final photo shoot and a teenage boy’s marvelous animated conversation with Lennon, then revisit his semi-sensical illustrated verses.

HT Open Culture

Donating = Loving

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





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





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

23 JUNE, 2015

Beloved Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Importance of Believing in Each Other and How Art Fortifies Our Mutual Dignity

By:

“We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man… We must believe, without fear, in people.”

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their prescient 1970 conversation on race, “because we are still each other’s only hope.” It is in such troubled times as ours — times of shootings, beatings, and the only kind of violence there is: the senseless kind — that we most need to heed Baldwin, to be reminded of who we can be to each other, of the tender and tenacious common humanity that undergirds all surface otherness.

Count on legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) — one of the most lucid and luminous minds of the past century, a man of immense insight into the creative impulse, deep capacity for gratitude, and complex emotional life — to do the reminding.

A decade before the assassination of JFK prompted Bernstein to write his unforgettable speech on the only true antidote to violence, he penned a beautiful and elevating short essay for NPR’s This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — the same altogether magnificent compendium that gave us Thomas Mann on time and features other ennobling reflections from beloved luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

Leonard Bernstein by Jack Mitchell

Bernstein writes:

I believe in people. I feel, love, need, and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety, or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me. One person fighting for the truth can disqualify for me the platitudes of centuries. And one human being who meets with injustice can render invalid the entire system which has dispensed it.

A century after Thoreau wrote that there is “no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor,” Bernstein kisses awake our capacity for self-transcendence, from which our capacity to change the world springs:

I believe that man’s noblest endowment is his capacity to change. Armed with reason, he can see two sides and choose: He can be divinely wrong. I believe in man’s right to be wrong. Out of this right he has built, laboriously and lovingly, something we reverently call democracy. He has done it the hard way and continues to do it the hard way — by reason, by choosing, by error and rectification, by the difficult, slow method in which the dignity of A is acknowledged by B, without impairing the dignity of C. Man cannot have dignity without loving the dignity of his fellow.

I believe in the potential of people. I cannot rest passively with those who give up in the name of “human nature.” Human nature is only animal nature if it is obliged to remain static. Without growth, without metamorphosis, there is no godhead. If we believe that man can never achieve a society without wars, then we are condemned to wars forever. This is the easy way. But the laborious, loving way, the way of dignity and divinity, presupposes a belief in people and in their capacity to change, grow, communicate, and love.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Neruda’s exquisite metaphor for why we make art, Bernstein considers the power of art as a medium of love that confers dignity upon existence — our own and each other’s:

I believe in man’s unconscious mind, the deep spring from which comes his power to communicate and to love. For me, all art is a combination of these powers; for if love is the way we have of communicating personally in the deepest way, then what art can do is to extend this communication, magnify it, and carry it to vastly greater numbers of people. Therefore art is valid for the warmth and love it carries within it, even if it be the lightest entertainment, or the bitterest satire, or the most shattering tragedy.

Exhorting us to believe “in one another, in our ability to grow and change, in our mutual dignity,” Bernstein echoes John Steinbeck’s memorable assertion that “the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world” and adds:

We must encourage thought, free and creative. We must respect privacy. We must observe taste by not exploiting our sorrows, successes, or passions. We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of good. We must believe, without fear, in people.

Complement the wholly wonderful This I Believe with Bernstein on motivation, his beautiful letter of gratitude to his mentor, and his electrifying tribute to JFK, then revisit Viktor Frankl on why it pays to believe in each other.

Donating = Loving

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





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





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

23 JUNE, 2015

John Waters’s Spectacular RISD Commencement Address on Creative Rebellion and the Artist’s Task to Cause Constructive Chaos

By:

“Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”

Joining the greatest commencement addresses of all time is John Waters’s spectacular 2015 RISD graduation speech on creative rebellion and the artist’s task to cause constructive chaos — annotated highlights transcribed below, please enjoy:

On letting your life speak and finding your bliss:

Somehow I’ve been able to make a living doing what I love best for 50 years without ever having to get a real job. “But how can you be so disciplined?” friends always ask when I tell them my job is to get up every day at 6 A.M. Monday to Friday and think up insane stuff. Easy! If I didn’t work this hard for myself, I’d have to go work for somebody else.

On not fearing rejection (for creative history is strewn with testaments to the importance of tenacity in its face, from Henri Rousseau’s heartening story of success after a lifetime of rejection to Joan Didion’s extensive collection of rejection slips to the bittersweet wisdom from Janis Joplin’s final interview):

Remember, a “no” is free — ask for the world and pay no mind if you are initially turned down. A career in the arts is like a hitchhiking trip — all you need is one person to say “Get in!” and off you go. And then the confidence begins.

On mastering the art of observation — which is as important in science as it is in art — and finding the necessary yin-yang of observation and participation:

You must participate in the creative world you want to become part of. So what if you have talent? Then what? You have to figure out how to work your way inside. Keep up with what’s causing chaos in your own field.

If you’re a visual artist, go see the shows in the galleries that are frantically competing to find the one bad neighborhood left in Manhattan to open up in.

Watch every movie that gets a negative review in The New York Times and figure out what the director did wrong.

Read, read, read!

Watch people on the streets — spy, be nosy, eavesdrop.

Decades after Susan Sontag’s piercing meditation on courage and resistance, Waters makes a more playful and irreverent but no less profound case for the necessity of countercultural bravery and constructive dissent:

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience.

These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? … Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy: the insider — like I am.

On applying Blaise Pascal’s method of persuasion:

You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America — and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys… Hairspray is a Trojan horse — it snuck into Middle America and never got caught.

You can do the same thing.

On the power of humor:

Listen to your political enemies, especially the smart ones, and then figure out a way to make them laugh. Nobody likes a bore on a soapbox. Humor is always the best defense and weapon. If you can make an idiot laugh, they’ll at least pause and listen before they do something stupid … to you.

On cultivating an identity that honors the expansiveness of the human spirit, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive:

Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers. Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime at the back of the bookstore next to the bathrooms. No! I want it up front with the best-sellers. (And don’t heterosexual kids actually receive more prejudice in art schools today than the gay ones?) Things are a-changin’ — it’s a confusing time.

A sidewise wink at the absurd aberrations of political correctness:

This might be time for a trigger warning… I’ve heard [that] you’re supposed to warn students if you’re going to talk about something that challenges their values — I thought that’s why you went to college. My whole life has been a trigger warning!

On living wholeheartedly in an unfeeling universe:

There’s no such thing as karma. So many of my talented great friends are dead and so many of the fools I’ve met and loathed are still alive — it’s not fair, and it never will be.

On the single most important task of parenting, which psychologists have also confirmed:

My parents made me feel safe, and that’s why I’m up here today. That’s what you should try to do to your children, too — no matter where you get your children these days.

On the artist’s task not only to bear witness to the universe but, as James Baldwin argued half a century earlier, to poke holes in it for new light to shine through:

Contemporary art’s job is to wreck what came before — is there a better job description than that to aspire to? … Go out in the world and fuck it up beautifully… Horrify us with new ideas. Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living… It’s your turn to cause trouble — but this time in the real world, and this time from the inside.

For more of the finest commencement addresses of all time, see Teresita Fernandez on what it really means to be an artist (Virginia Commonwealth University, 2013), Joseph Brodsky’s six rules for winning at the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988), Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013), Kurt Vonnegut on boredom, belonging, and our human responsibility (Fredonia College, 1978), Bill Watterson on creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990), Patti Smith on learning to count on yourself (Pratt University, 2010), George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse University, 2013), and Anna Quindlen’s undelivered Villanova address on the overlooked secret to a happy life

Donating = Loving

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





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





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