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Sylvia Plath on Privilege, Free Will, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession.”

One of our our basic human biases is the tendency to take credit for our successes as a function of our personal excellence and to attribute out failures to external circumstances. Privilege is problematic precisely because it leads the privileged to believe that their advantages in life are entirely earned and the disadvantages of the less fortunate entirely merited, when in reality powerful cultural currents can carry us in either direction based on cultural, political, and economic forces wholly external to our character, ability, and personal worth. But when all of our external conditions are stripped away, be they fortuitous or wretched, who are we in our innermost personhood? What erects the geometry of the “I”?

That’s what young Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) addresses in a characteristically poignant and exquisitely self-aware passage from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the same terrific volume that gave us the precocious poet on finding nonreligious divinity in nature, her exuberant celebration of curiosity, and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness.

In a journal entry from the autumn of 1950, eighteen-year-old Plath considers free will, the blinders of privilege, and what makes us who we are. She writes:

What do I know of sorrow? No one I love has ever died or been tortured. I have never wanted for food to eat, or a place to sleep. I have been gifted with five senses and an attractive exterior. So I can philosophize from my snug little cushioned seat. So I am going to one of the most outstanding colleges in America; I am living with two thousand of the most outstanding girls in the United States. What have I to complain about? Nothing much. The main way I can add to my self-respect is by saying that I’m on scholarship, and if I hadn’t exercised my free will and studied through high school I never would be here. But when you come right down to it, how much of that was free will? How much was the capacity to think that I got from my parents, the home urge to study and do well academically, the necessity to find an alternative for the social world of boys and girls to which I was forbidden acceptance? And does not my desire to write come from a tendency toward introversion begun when I was small, brought up as I was in the fairy-tale world of Mary Poppins and Winnie-the-Pooh? Did not that set me apart from most of my school mates? — the fact that I got all A’s and was “different” from the rough-and-tumble Conways — how I am not quite sure, but “different” as the animal with the touch of human hands about him when he returns to the herd. All this may be a subtle way of egoistically separating myself from the common herd, but take it for what it’s worth.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep

A year earlier, Plath had written in a letter to her mother: “I want to be free — free to know people and their backgrounds — free to move to different parts of the world so I may learn that there are other morals and standards besides my own.” Now, it is with this empathetic curiosity and acute awareness of how different cultural backgrounds manifest different foregrounds of personhood that she returns to the question of free will in her journal:

As for free will, there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention. If I had been born of Italian parents in one of the caves in the hills I would be a prostitute at the age of 12 or so because I had to live (why?) and that was the only way open. If I was born into a wealthy New York family with pseudo-cultural leanings, I would have had my coming-out party along with the rest of them, and be equipped with fur coats, social contacts, and a blasé pout. How do I know? I don’t; I can only guess. I wouldn’t be I. But I am I now; and so many other millions are so irretrievably their own special variety of “I” that I can hardly bear to think of it. I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession. The pen scratches on the paper … I … I … I … I … I … I.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a remarkable read in its entirety — a masterwork both of philosophy at its rawest and of prose at its most refined. Complement this particular passage with cosmologist Janna Levin on the perplexity of free will, C.S. Lewis on what it means to have a free will in a universe of fixed laws, and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity, then revisit Plath on the creative benefits of keeping a journal, her little-known children’s book illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, and her beautiful and heartbreaking reading of the poem “A Birthday Present.”

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The Central Mystery of Quantum Mechanics, Animated

How a lineage of scientists pieced together the puzzle revealing the dual nature of the universe.

Ever since Heisenberg stood on the shoulders of giants to pave the way for quantum mechanics, this captivating branch of science and its central fact — that light can behave both as a particle and as a wave — has challenged us to grapple with the perplexing duality of the universe, inspiring everything from critical questions about the future of science to mind-bending meditations at the intersection of theology and astrophysics to philosophical children’s books.

That central mystery of quantum mechanics is what particle physicist Chad Orzel, author of the illuminating and intelligently entertaining How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog (public library), explores in this animated primer from TED Ed.

Orzel writes in the book:

Classical physics is the physics of everyday objects — tennis balls and squeaky toys, stoves and ice cubes, magnets and electrical wiring… Modern physics describes the stranger world that we see when we go beyond the everyday… Modern physics is divided into two parts, each representing a radical departure from classical rules. One part, relativity, deals with objects that move very fast, or are in the presence of strong gravitational forces… The other part of modern physics is what I talk to my dog about.

He points out that quantum mechanics is woven into the very fabric of modern life:

Without an understanding of the quantum nature of the electron, it would be impossible to make the semiconductor chips that run our computers. Without an understanding of the quantum nature of light and atoms, it would be impossible to make the lasers we use to send messages over fiber-optic communication lines.

Quantum theory’s effect on science goes beyond the merely practical — it forces physicists to grapple with issues of philosophy. Quantum physics places limits on what we can know about the universe and the properties of objects in it. Quantum mechanics even changes our understanding of what it means to make a measurement. It requires a complete rethinking of the nature of reality at the most fundamental level.

Quantum mechanics describes an utterly bizarre world, where nothing is certain and objects don’t have definite properties until you measure them. It’s a world where distant objects are connected in strange ways, where there are entire universes with different histories right next to our own, and where “virtual particles” pop in and out of existence in otherwise empty space.

Quantum physics may sound like the stuff of fantasy fiction, but it’s science. The world described in quantum theory is our world, at a microscopic scale. The strange effects predicted by quantum physics are real, with real consequences and applications.

Those consequences and applications are what Orzel goes on to explore in the wholly fascinating How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog. Complement it with Alice in Quantumland, an allegorical explanation of quantum mechanics inspired by Lewis Carroll, then revisit TED Ed’s stimulating animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

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Oliver Jeffers on the Paradox of Ownership and the Allure of Duality

“We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.”

Oliver Jeffers is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Whether he is exploring love and loss in his unusual stories for young readers or the facts and fictions of memory in his fine art, undergirding his work is a deep fascination with duality and paradox.

In the foreword to the magnificent monograph Neither Here Nor There: The Art of Oliver Jeffers, Richard Seabrook remarks on this recurring theme, “the concept that something can mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another.” Nowhere does this come more vibrantly alive than in Jeffers’s This Moose Belongs to Me (public library) — a disarming story about a boy who believes he owns his pet moose Marcel, only to discover that so do other people, who call him by different names, while the moose himself doesn’t quite get the concept of being owned and is thus oblivious to the boy’s list of rules for being a good pet.

What emerges is an allegory for our rather human tendency to dig in our heels when things don’t go our way, forgetting Henry Miller’s timeless taunt — “And your way, is it really your way?” — and snapping into self-righteousness. When the moose doesn’t obey the rules of being a pet, the boy storms off “embarrassed and enraged” — another curious psychoemotional duality the richness of which Jeffers captures with great economy of words.

Sometimes the moose wasn’t a very good pet. He generally ignored Rule 7: going whichever way Wilfred wanted to go.

But the story is, above all, a parable about the nature of ownership as a mutually agreed upon figment and the comical sense of entitlement it engenders. What makes it especially enchanting is the conceptual meta-message — for the backgrounds of his illustrated vignettes, Jeffers reapporpriates classical landscape paintings by a mid-century Slovakian painter named Alexander Dzigurski, rendering the project a sort of posthumous collaboration and a creative mashup of which Montaigne would have approved.

Jeffers’s message is subtle but resounding: In art — as in science, as in all of human culture — the ideas we call our own are but the combinatorial product of countless borrowings from the intellectual “property” of others. Perhaps Mark Twain put it best in his supportive letter to Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

With another delightfully thoughtful touch, Jeffers reminds us that these borrowings can come not only from others but from ourselves — in one of the scenes, the lumberjack-bear protagonist of his previous book, The Great Paper Caper, makes a cameo against the backdrop of a borrowed landscape painting.

In his wholly wonderful Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Jeffers tells the story of this moosely mashup and how he tracked down the grandson of the Slovakian painter for permissions, then reflects on the deeper elements of duality in his body of work. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

On the conceptual confluences that sprouted This Moose Belongs to Me, which was essentially Arthur Koestler’s seminal bisociation theory of creativity in action:

I was reading, at that time, a history of Manhattan and I read about the sale of Manhattan to the Dutch. And the natives who were on the land were like, “Yeah, sure, you can buy it!” But nobody really owns land anyway, so they had to leave — and that was to the great confusion of the Dutch… There was an element of truth in that… We only own something because everybody agrees that we do.

I just thought this was a really interesting concept and applied it to owning a pet…

And then, when I was sketching the drawings … I knew that I wanted to use oil paintings… and I’d started off making all those oil paintings… At that point, I glanced over my studio and there were all of these old landscape paintings lined up for another project. And I’m thinking about this story, and the rules of how to be a good pet, and the moose doesn’t really get that he’s supposed to be a pet — and two things connected to each other. And I thought, “Well, if it is about ownership, then I should probably just reappropriate these paintings into this book… It seems conceptually a fit.”

[…]

The book ended up mostly being a collaboration between me and this long-ago dead guy.

On the roots of his obsession with duality and its particular manifestation in a collaboration with a doctor of quantum physics around the famed fact that light can appear to be both a particle and a wave, depending on how the question is asked and how the answer is measured:

There was a sense of duality I grew up with — [Belfast] was a split city, really. There was a lot of violence, but there was also a lot of happiness. And really, that being the backbone of the culture and the existence in which I grew up, and choosing to get past, I think it leaves its marks way down there.

But then, I fell in with this project with Professor Quantum Physics, and through that I discovered the actual theory of duality, which looks at light in particular — light when measured in particles becomes a particle and light when measured in waves becomes a wave. What I took from that was that it’s up to us, then, how we define it — we choose the equipment with which we measure, so therefore it’s up to us… That was what fascinated me — that we have the ability to look at anything and make it anything we want, to some degree.

That’s why I started making art about that sense of, “Can we look at things logically and emotionally, all at the same time?”

Subscribe to Design Matters here. For more of Jeffers’s magic, see Once Upon an Alphabet, which was among the best children’s books of 2014, and The Heart and the Bottle, a tender illustrated fable about what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.

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Why Consciousness Exists: Douglas Rushkoff on Science, God, and the Purpose of Reality

What to make of the fact “that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.”

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his magnificent meditation on science and spirituality, “we will have failed.” Some centuries earlier, Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, touched on the same idea in a beautiful letter to her neighbor; and some decades later, Alan Lightman, MIT’s first professor with dual appointments in science and the humanities, considered how we can find meaning in the space between the known and the unknowable.

Joining that canon of intellectual elegance is media analyst, documentarian, and writer Douglas Rushkoff with his contribution to This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (public library) — that mind-stretching volume by Edge founder John Brockman, who posed before 175 of the world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, and writers the certainty-rattling question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

Rushkoff points the skeptical prod of his answer at “the atheism prerequisite” — atheism, of course, being a case of our curious tendency to define what we are by what we are not — and writes:

We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality. Most of us living in it feel invested with a sense of purpose.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book ‘Cosmigraphics.’Click image for more.

Echoing John Updike’s exquisitely articulated observation that “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain,” Ruskhoff adds:

Whether this directionality is a genuine, preexisting condition of the universe, an illusion perpetrated by DNA, or something that will one day emerge from social interaction has yet to be determined.

Rushkoff cautions that blind faith in dogma, be it scientific or mystical, is equally perilous to grasping the true nature of reality — including the grand grasper itself, human consciousness:

Science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into convoluted assumptions about the origins of spacetime, in which time itself simply must be accepted as a by-product of the Big Bang, and consciousness (if it even exists) as a by-product of matter. Such narratives follow information on its continuing evolution toward complexity, the Singularity, and robot consciousness — a saga no less apocalyptic than the most literal interpretations of biblical prophecy.

It’s entirely more rational — and less steeped in storybook logic — to work with the possibility that time predates matter and that consciousness is less the consequence of a physical cause-and-effect reality than a precursor.

By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the possibility that it has purpose.

See more of the answers from This Idea Must Die, then complement this particular one with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin on science and the human spirit.

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