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30 APRIL, 2013

Cosmic Apprentice: Dorion Sagan on Why Science and Philosophy Need Each Other

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“A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.”

As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science (public library) as he sets out to explore the intricate ways in which the two fields hang “in a kind of odd balance, watching each other, holding hands”:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. There is truth in this clever crack, but, as Niels Bohr impressed, while the opposite of a trivial truth is false, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

I would say that applies to the flip side of the above flip takedown: Science’s eye for detail, buttressed by philosophy’s broad view, makes for a kind of alembic, an antidote to both. This intellectual electrum cuts the cloying taste of idealist and propositional philosophy with the sharp nectar of fact yet softens the edges of a technoscience that has arguably lost both its moral and its epistemological compass, the result in part of its being funded by governments and corporations whose relationship to the search for truth and its open dissemination can be considered problematic at best.

Sagan refutes the popular perception of science as rationally objective, a vessel of capital-T Truth, reminding us that every scientific concept and theory was birthed by a subjective, fallible human mind:

All observations are made from distinct places and times, and in science no less than art or philosophy by particular individuals. … Although philosophy isn’t fiction, it can be more personal, creative and open, a kind of counterbalance for science even as it argues that science, with its emphasis on a kind of impersonal materialism, provides a crucial reality check for philosophy and a tendency to overtheorize that [is] inimical to the scientific spirit. Ideally, in the search for truth, science and philosophy, the impersonal and autobiographical, can “keep each other honest,” in a kind of open circuit. Philosophy as the underdog even may have an advantage, because it’s not supposed to be as advanced as science, nor does it enjoy science’s level of institutional support — or the commensurate heightened risks of being beholden to one’s benefactors.

Like Richard Feynman, who argued tirelessly for the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure, Sagan echoes the idea that willful ignorance is what drives science and the fear of being wrong is one of its greatest hindrances:

Science’s spirit is philosophical. It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.

In noting that a scientific theory must transcend the purely epistemological and reflect both pragmatic and aesthetic sensibilities, Sagan observes:

Some perspectives, some theories lead to many new questions, new devices, and enriched worldviews. They must be counted not just as true and productive but beautiful and stimulating, like poems or paintings, except that their medium is not pigments or words but our perception and intellection.

Sagan reflects on his father’s conviction that “the effort to popularize science is a crucial one for society,” one he shared with Richard Feynman, and what made Carl’s words echo as profoundly and timelessly as they do:

Science and philosophy both had a reputation for being dry, but my father helped inject life into the former, partly by speaking in plain English and partly by focusing on the science fiction fantasy of discovering extraterrestrial life.

In that respect, science could learn from philosophy’s intellectual disposition:

Philosophy today, not taught in grade school in the United States, is too often merely an academic pursuit, a handmaiden or apologetics of science, or else a kind of existential protest, a trendy avocation of grad students and the dark-clad coffeehouse set. But philosophy, although it historically gives rise to experimental science, sometimes preserves a distinct mode of sustained questioning that sharply distinguishes it from modern science, which can be too quick to provide answers.

[…]

Philosophy is less cocksure, less already-knowing, or should be, than the pundits’ diatribes that relieve us of the difficulties of not knowing, of carefully weighing, of looking at the other side, of having to think things through for ourselves. Dwell in possibility, wrote Emily Dickinson: Philosophy at its best seems a kind of poetry, not an informational delivery but a dwelling, an opening of our thoughts to the world.

Like Buckminster Fuller, who vehemently opposed specialization, Sagan attests to the synergetic value of intellectual cross-pollination, attesting to the idea that true breakthroughs in science require cross-disciplinary connections and originality consists of linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected:

It is true that science requires analysis and that it has fractured into microdisciplines. But because of this, more than ever, it requires synthesis. Science is about connections. Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect.

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” advised Martine in his wonderful 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Science, Sagan suggests — at least at its most elegant — is a conversation of constant revision, where each dead end brings to life a new fruitful question:

Theories are not only practical, and wielded like intellectual swords to the death … but beautiful. A good one is worth more than all the ill-gotten hedge fund scraps in the world. A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.

Supporting Neil deGrasse Tyson’s contention that intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance, Sagan applies this very paradigm of connection-making to the crux of the age-old science vs. religion debate, painting evolution not as a tool of certitude but as a reminder of our connectedness to everything else:

Connecting humanity with other species in a single process was Darwin’s great natural historical accomplishment. It showed that some of the issues relegated to religion really come under the purview of science. More than just a research program for technoscience, it provides a eureka moment, a subject of contemplation open in principle to all thinking minds. Beyond the squabbles over its mechanisms and modes, evolution’s epiphany derives from its widening of vistas, its showing of the depths of our connections to others from whom we’d thought we were separate. Philosophy, too … in its ancient, scientifico-genic spirit of inquiry so different from a mere, let alone peevish, recounting of facts, needs to be reconnected to science for the latter to fulfill its potential not just as something useful but as a source of numinous moments, deep understanding, and indeed, religious-like epiphanies of cosmic comprehension and aesthetic contemplation.

The essays in Cosmic Apprentice go on to explore such inevitably captivating subjects as our sense of identity, the nonlinearity of time, and the ethical dilemmas of biopolitics.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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30 APRIL, 2013

How One of Literature’s Greatest Loves Began: The Fateful Meeting of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein

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“She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire.”

Alice B. Toklas, born on April 30, 1877, is remembered for two things: being Gertrude Stein’s great love and writing her unusual, revered memoir-disguised-as-cookbook chronicling their life together. On September 8, 1907, her first day as an American expat in Paris, Toklas met Stein. The two fell instantly in love and remained together for the next 39 years, until Stein’s death. Stein often referred to Toklas as her “wifey” and addressed her as “baby precious.” Writing late into the night, the author liked to leave notes next to the pillow for Alice to find in the morning, signed “Y.D,” short for “Your Darling.” In an ideal, civilized world of human rights and equality, theirs would have been a marriage — and it would have been one of the happiest and most exemplary in literary history.

In her memoir, What Is Remembered (public library), Alice relays the fateful encounter, conveying with admirably few words the immense, intense mesmerism of their relationship:

It was Gertrude Stein who held my complete attention, as she did for all the many years I knew her. I knew her until her death, and all these empty ones since then. She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice — deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.

In the foreword to the Folio illustrated edition of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, M. F. K. Fisher paints an expressive portrait of Toklas, which seems to begin rather ungenerous but quickly turns lovable, bewitching even:

Her face was sallow, her nose was big or even huge, and hooked and at the same time almost fleshy, the kind that artists try not to draw. And she had a real moustache, not the kind that old women often grow, but the sturdy kind, which started when she was first going into adolescence. I don’t think she ever tried to shave it, or have it plucked out or removed chemically or with hormones, as a woman might do today. She wore it unblinkingly, as far as I can tell, although of course as a person of unusual awareness she must have known that some people were taken aback by it. A friend of mine who admired her greatly, and often traveled with her in her last years, wrote that Miss Toklas wore her close-cropped hair, which stayed black well into her eighties, in bangs “faintly echoed by a dark down on her lip.” This amuses me. It is typical of the general reaction to something that would have been unnoticed except for her obvious femaleness. Another friend said more aptly, or at least better for my own picture, that her strong black moustache made other faces look nude.

She had remarkable eyes, very large and lively, the kind that seem to send off sparks, that sometimes look glowing with an inner fire. Probably people who were intimidated at first by her fixed upon them with relief … that is, until they forgot their shyness in the deft, supple way she moved and talked.

She was a tiny person, not five feet tall, I think, and she dressed with a studied daintiness, except for the clunky sandals on her pretty feet. … She loved dramatic hats, and after Miss Stein’s death she wore them oftener in rare gaddings … big extravagant creations with feathers and wide brims, and always the elegant suits and those clunky sandals. Nobody has ever written, though, that she looked eccentric. Perhaps it was because of her eyes. . . .

Slim and simply worded yet incredibly moving, What Is Remembered endures as a projection of Toklas herself, one that stays with you long after the lights have gone out.

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29 APRIL, 2013

A Natural History of Love

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“A one-syllable word heavy as a heartbeat … a sort of traffic accident of the heart.”

“You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better,” a wise woman wrote. But what, exactly, is love? Literary history has given us a wealth of beautiful definitions, mathematicians have calculated its odds, and psychologists have dissected its mechanisms. Love has been hacked, illustrated, coached, and reimagined. And yet the heart’s supreme potential remains ever-elusive.

Written nearly two decades ago, A Natural History Of Love (public library) by prolific science historian Diane Ackerman, Carl Sagan’s favorite cosmic poet, endures as one of the most dimensional explorations of humanity’s highest emotion. Ackerman begins with a meditation on love’s many faces, inescapable power, and ineffable nature:

Love is the great intangible. In our nightmares, we can create beasts out of pure emotion. Hate stalks the streets with dripping fangs, fear flies down narrow alleyways on leather wings, and jealousy spins sticky webs across the sky. In daydreams, we can maneuver with poise, foiling an opponent, scoring high on fields of glory while crowds cheer, cutting fast to the heart of an adventure. But what dream state is love? Frantic and serene, vigilant and calm, wrung-out and fortified, explosive and sedate — love commands a vast army of moods. Hoping for victory, limping from the latest skirmish, lovers enter the arena once again. Sitting still, we are as daring as gladiators.

[…]

Love is the white light of emotion. It includes many feelings which, out of laziness and confusion, we crowd into one simple word. Art is the prism that sets them free, then follows the gyrations of one or a few. When art separates this thick tangle of feelings, love bares its bones. But it cannot be measured or mapped. Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one can agree on what it is.

Even the very etymology of love shies away from explaining how, when, and why we imbued love with such immense significance:

What a small word we use for an idea so immense and powerful it has altered the flow of history, calmed monsters, kindled works of art, cheered the forlorn, turned tough guys to mush, consoled the enslaved, driven strong women mad, glorified the humble, fueled national scandals, bankrupted robber barons, and made mincemeat of kings. How can love’s spaciousness be conveyed in the narrow confines of one syllable? If we search for the source of the word, we find a history vague and confusing, stretching back to the Sanskrit lubhyati (“he desires”). I’m sure the etymology rambles back much farther than that, to a one-syllable word heavy as a heartbeat. Love is an ancient delirium, a desire older than civilization, with taproots stretching deep into dark and mysterious days.

Our long history of ambivalence towards love, Ackerman argues, is rooted in the necessary vulnerability and uncontrolled surrender true love requires:

We think of it as a sort of traffic accident of the heart. It is an emotion that scares us more than cruelty, more than violence, more than hatred. We allow ourselves to be foiled by the vagueness of the word. After all, love requires the utmost vulnerability. We equip someone with freshly sharpened knives; strip naked; then invite him to stand close. What could be scarier?

Still, uncomfortable as it may be, love is also inescapable and subject to our own imagination in redefining it:

Common as child birth, love seems rare nonetheless, always catches one by surprise, and cannot be taught. Each child rediscovers it, each couple redefines it, each parent reinvents it. People search for love as if it were a city lost beneath the desert dunes, where pleasure is the law, the streets are lined with brocade cushions, and the sun never sets.

Ackerman offers an important disclaimer on how we think about the history of love, which is in effect a universal reflection on all of history and something we too often forget — the idea that everything builds on what came before:

It’s tempting to think of love as a progression, from ignorance toward the refined light of reason, but that would be a mistake. The history of love is not a ladder we climb rung by rung leaving previous rungs below. Human history is not a journey across a landscape, in the course of which we leave one town behind as we approach another. Nomads constantly on the move, we carry everything with us, all we possess. We carry the seeds and nails and remembered hardships of everywhere we have lived, the beliefs and hurts and bones of every ancestor. Our baggage is heavy. We can’t bear to part with anything that ever made us human. The way we love in the twentieth century is as much an accumulation of past sentiments as a response to modern life.

Much like the study of psychology, which has a long history of treating pathology by bringing our emotions from the negative to the neutral and only a nascent interest in the kind of “positive psychology” that elevates us above the neutral, Ackerman points out that the science of love has been largely confined to examining the negative — and yet, that misses the most rewarding marvels of all:

After all, there are countless studies on war, hate, crime, prejudice, and so on. Social scientists prefer to study negative behaviors and emotions. Perhaps, they don’t feel as comfortable studying love per se. I add that “per se” because they are studying love — often they’re studying what happens when love is deficient, thwarted, warped, or absent. … We have the great fortune to live on a planet abounding with humans, plants, and animals; and I often marvel at the strange tasks evolution sets them. Of all the errands life seems to be running, of all the mysteries that enchant us, love is my favorite.

A Natural History Of Love goes on to explore such intoxicatingly fascinating subjects as why love evolved, how culture and customs shape its expressions, what makes erotic and nonerotic love different, and much more. It comes as a fantastic addition to these essential books on the psychology of love.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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