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Anne Lamott on Love, Despair, and Our Capacity for Change

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

Anne Lamott on Love, Despair, and Our Capacity for Change

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Nothing keeps us from changing more than our tendency — our willingness — to remain locked into versions of ourselves, into personae and identities barred in by heavy leaden rods of self-righteousness. Too often, we’d rather be right than understand — ourselves or others or the world — but it is only understanding, which only grows by leaps and bounds of wrong guesses and failed theories, that firms our grasp of reality.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Lamott addresses this tragic self-limitation in the opening essay, titled “Puzzles.” With an eye to “the fleecy cloak we’ve made for ourselves, the finery of being right,” she writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

Half a century after Joan Didion reflected on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality, Lamott adds:

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

My hand-drawn map based on Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s poem “Utopia”

The problem, of course, is that truth remains slippery, making our entire existence a giant slipping slide into what the poet Wisława Szymborska called “unfathomable life.” Still, somehow, we slip and slide and get by. We swim through the world, fragile and disoriented, buoyed only by love, transformed only by love.

Nearly a century and a half after Nietzsche considered truth and lies in a nonmoral sense, Lamott writes:

Scientists say we are made of stars, and I believe them, although my upper arms look like hell. Maybe someday the stars will reabsorb me. Maybe, as fundamentalist Christians have shared with me, I will rot in hell for all eternity, which I would hate, because I am very sensitive. Besides, I have known hell, and I have also known love. Love was bigger.

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Echoing philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s beautiful and discomfiting assertion that “to be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” Lamott adds:

How can we celebrate paradox, let alone manage at all, knowing how scary the future may be — that the baby brother will grow, and ignore you or hurt you or break your heart? Or that we may die, after an unattractive decline, or bomb North Korea later today? We remember that because truth is paradox, something beautiful is also going on. So while trusting that and waiting for revelation, we do the next right thing. We tell the truth. We march, make dinner, have rummage sales to raise relief funds. Whoever arranges such things keeps distracting us and shifting things around so we don’t get stuck in hopelessness: we can take one loud, sucking, disengaging step back into hope. We remember mustard seeds, that the littlest things will have great results. We do the smallest, realest, most human things. We water that which is dry.

Almost Everything is a buoyant read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning and Zadie Smith on optimism and despair, then revisit Lamott on forgiveness as the root of self-respect, how we find meaning in a crazy-making world, the greatest gift of friendship, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her superb manifesto for handling haters.

BP

Stephen Hawking on What Makes a Good Theory and the Quest for a Theory of Everything

“There are grounds for cautious optimism that we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.”

Stephen Hawking on What Makes a Good Theory and the Quest for a Theory of Everything

“We are bathing in mystery and confusion on many subjects,” Carl Sagan reflected in an interview in August of 1980, “and I think that will always be our destiny. The universe will always be much richer than our ability to understand it.”

Exactly eight years later, a mind far more scientifically formidable, if not as poetic, ignited in the popular imagination the idea that Sagan’s worldview might be wrong — that the universe might, after all, be fully knowable and fully describable in a single elegant theory.

When Stephen Hawking (January 8, 1942–March 14, 2018) sent his book proposal for what would become A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (public library) to Cambridge University Press — his first book of popular science — his editors cautioned him that it contained too much science to be sellable. Every equation, they admonished, would cut book sales in half. Hawking revised the manuscript until it contained a single equation — Einstein’s E = mc2. He transmuted all the remaining equations into a scintillating scientific narrative and completed the book just before he rallied Cambridge into a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Newton’s Principia — perhaps the most paradigm-shifting book in the history of science, introducing the theory of gravitation to the world.

Stephen Hawking (Photograph: Gemma Levine)

A Brief History of Time was published on April Fool’s Day 1988. In the introduction, Carl Sagan extolled Hawking as a “worthy successor” to Newton and lauded the book as replete with “lucid revelations on the frontiers of physics, astronomy, cosmology and courage.” Its accelerated ascent up the bestseller list stunned even Hawking himself. Within months, millions of copies had sold and the book was being translated into multiple languages — success so rapid that it entered the Guinness Book of World Records. (Hawking was amused that his American-made speech synthesizer struggled with the word, pronouncing it Guy-ness.) A “phenomenal international bestseller” for decades to come, in the words inscribed on the cover of the most current edition at the time of Hawking’s death, A Brief History of Time went on to shape the way generations comprehend the universe.

One of the most abiding aspects of the book is Hawking’s succinct description of what makes a good theory. In a sense, it parallels pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner’s framework of what makes a good story. With an eye to Karl Popper’s famous assertion that “knowledge consists in the search for truth… not the search for certainty,” Hawking writes:

Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory. On the other hand, you can disprove a theory by finding even a single observation that disagrees with the predictions of the theory. As philosopher of science Karl Popper has emphasized, a good theory is characterized by the fact that it makes a number of predictions that could in principle be disproved or falsified by observation. Each time new experiments are observed to agree with the predictions the theory survives, and our confidence in it is increased; but if ever a new observation is found to disagree, we have to abandon or modify the theory.

A 1568 illuminated illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system, from 100 Diagrams That Changed the World

In her excellent biography, Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind (public library), Kitty Ferguson builds upon Hawking’s formulation of a good theory and offers her own, more expansive and poetic definition:

A theory is not Truth with a capital T, not a rule, not fact, not the final word. You might think of a theory as a toy boat. To find out whether it floats, you set it on the water. You test it. When it flounders, you pull it out of the water and make some changes, or you start again and build a different boat, benefiting from what you’ve learned from the failure.

Some theories are good boats. They float a long time. We may know there are a few leaks, but for all practical purposes they serve us well. Some serve us so well, and are so solidly supported by experiment and testing, that we begin to regard them as truth. Scientists, keeping in mind how complex and surprising our universe is, are extremely wary about calling them that. Although some theories do have a lot of experimental success to back them up and others are hardly more than a glimmer in a theorist’s eyes — brilliantly designed boats that have never been tried on the water — it is risky to assume that any of them is an absolute, fundamental scientific “truth.”

It is important, however, not to dither around forever, continuing to call into question well-established theories without having a good reason for doing so. For science to move ahead, it is necessary to decide whether some theories are dependable enough, and match observation sufficiently well, to allow us to use them as building blocks and proceed from there. Of course, some new thought or discovery might come along and threaten to sink the boat.

A simulation of two black holes colliding to produce a gravitational wave — the landmark event detected by LIGO in 2016, arguably the most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo’s day and the triumph of an Everestine century-long climb toward truth, building heavily on Hawking’s work.

Hawking’s own life was animated by one particular theoretical pursuit — the search for a theory, colloquially known as a “theory of everything,” that unifies Einstein’s general relativity, the gravity-based science of the very large, and quantum mechanics, the science of the very small, based on three non-gravitational forces: the weak, strong, and electromagnetic forces. In the penultimate chapter of A Brief History of Time, Hawking considers this unholy grail of physics against the backdrop of the history of science:

The prospects for finding such a theory seem to be much better now because we know so much more about the universe. But we must beware of overconfidence — we have had false dawns before! At the beginning of this century, for example, it was thought that everything could be explained in terms of the properties of continuous matter, such as elasticity and heat conduction. The discovery of atomic structure and the uncertainty principle put an emphatic end to that. Then again, in 1928, physicist and Nobel Prize winner Max Born told a group of visitors to Göttingen University, “Physics, as we know it, will be over in six months.” His confidence was based on the recent discovery by Dirac of the equation that governed the electron. It was thought that a similar equation would govern the proton, which was the only other particle known at the time, and that would be the end of theoretical physics. However, the discovery of the neutron and of nuclear forces knocked that one on the head too. Having said this, I still believe there are grounds for cautious optimism that we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.

Complement the timelessly fascinating Brief History of Time with poet Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Hawking, Hawking himself on the meaning of the universe, his “theory of everything” animated in 150 seconds, the story of how his mother shaped his genius, and the children’s book about time travel he co-wrote with his daughter, then revisit some of today’s leading thinkers on the most elegant theory of how the world works.

BP

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

“What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished…”

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

“The need of reason is not inspired by the quest for truth but by the quest for meaning,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her incisive meditation on the vital difference between thinking and knowing. “Knowledge consists in the search for truth,” Karl Popper cautioned in considering truth and the dangers of relativism. “It is not the search for certainty.”

But in an uncertain world, what is the measure of truth and where does the complex, conflicted human impulse for knowledge originate in the first place?

That is what Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) examined a century before Arendt and Popper in his 1873 essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” later translated by W.A. Haussmann and included in the indispensable Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (public library).

Friedrich Nietzsche

Half a century before Bertrand Russell admonished that, in a universe unconcerned with human interests, the equally naïve notions of optimism and pessimism “spring from self-importance, and are best corrected by a little astronomy,” Nietzsche paints the backdrop for the drama of truth:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with a gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. There is nothing so reprehensible and unimportant in nature that it would not immediately swell up like a balloon at the slightest puff of this power of knowing. And just as every porter wants to have an admirer, so even the proudest of men, the philosopher, supposes that he sees on all sides the eyes of the universe telescopically focused upon his action and thought.

1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, envisioning the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator. From Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time.

The desire for knowledge, Nietzsche argues, stems from the same hubristic self-focus and is amplified by the basic human instinct for belonging — within a culture, what is designated as truth is a form of social contract and a sort of “peace pact” among people. A century before Laura Riding observed that “the task of truth is divided among us, to the number of us,” Nietzsche writes:

A uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth. For the contrast between truth and lie arises here for the first time. The liar is a person who uses the valid designations, the words, in order to make something which is unreal appear to be real. He says, for example, “I am rich,” when the proper designation for his condition would be “poor.” He misuses fixed conventions by means of arbitrary substitutions or even reversals of names. If he does this in a selfish and moreover harmful manner, society will cease to trust him and will thereby exclude him. What men avoid by excluding the liar is not so much being defrauded as it is being harmed by means of fraud. Thus, even at this stage, what they hate is basically not deception itself, but rather the unpleasant, hated consequences of certain sorts of deception. It is in a similarly restricted sense that man now wants nothing but truth: he desires the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth. He is indifferent toward pure knowledge which has no consequences.

Suggesting that language itself can become a tool that conceals rather than reveals truth — something Anna Deavere Smith would echo a century later in her observation that “some people use language as a mask [and] create designed language that appears to reveal them but does not” — Nietzsche probes at these linguistic conventions themselves:

Are they perhaps products of knowledge, that is, of the sense of truth? Are designations congruent with things? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?

[…]

What is a word? It is the copy in sound of a nerve stimulus. But the further inference from the nerve stimulus to a cause outside of us is already the result of a false and unjustifiable application of the principle of sufficient reason… We speak of a “snake”: this designation touches only upon its ability to twist itself and could therefore also fit a worm. What arbitrary differentiations! What one-sided preferences, first for this, then for that property of a thing!

Illustration from The Little Golden Book of Words

Half a century before the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore asserted that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” Nietzsche adds:

The various languages placed side by side show that with words it is never a question of truth, never a question of adequate expression; otherwise, there would not be so many languages. The “thing in itself” (which is precisely what the pure truth, apart from any of its consequences, would be) is likewise something quite incomprehensible to the creator of language and something not in the least worth striving for. This creator only designates the relations of things to men, and for expressing these relations he lays hold of the boldest metaphors… It is this way with all of us concerning language; we believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities… A word becomes a concept insofar as it simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases — which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal. Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted — but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model… We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us.

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.” One of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince.

With this, Nietzsche returns to his central premise and distills the notion of truth as a social contract in language:

What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions — they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.

And yet what Nietzsche tenders is not relativism but a framework for differentiating between truth and lie, rooted in the understanding that language — a human invention and social adaptation — is too porous a vessel for holding pure reality beyond the anthropocentric:

To be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone… From the sense that one is obliged to designate one thing as “red,” another as “cold,” and a third as “mute,” there arises a moral impulse in regard to truth. The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes.

As a “rational” being, he now places his behavior under the control of abstractions. He will no longer tolerate being carried away by sudden impressions, by intuitions. First he universalizes all these impressions into less colorful, cooler concepts, so that he can entrust the guidance of his life and conduct to them. Everything which distinguishes man from the animals depends upon this ability to volatilize perceptual metaphors in a schema, and thus to dissolve an image into a concept.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

He illustrates this transfiguration of physical fact into abstract concept in the recognition, construction, and articulation of “truth”:

If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man.

At bottom, what the investigator of such truths is seeking is only the metamorphosis of the world into man. He strives to understand the world as something analogous to man, and at best he achieves by his struggles the feeling of assimilation. Similar to the way in which astrologers considered the stars to be in man’s service and connected with his happiness and sorrow, such an investigator considers the entire universe in connection with man: the entire universe as the infinitely fractured echo of one original sound-man; the entire universe as the infinitely multiplied copy of one original picture-man. His method is to treat man as the measure of all things, but in doing so he again proceeds from the error of believing that he has these things [which he intends to measure] immediately before him as mere objects. He forgets that the original perceptual metaphors are metaphors and takes them to be the things themselves.

Our purest contact with reality, Nietzsche suggests, lies in breaking free from the trap of language and standing in absolute attentive presence with the actuality of what is before us — beyond classification, beyond description, beyond constriction into concept:

Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency: only by means of the petrification and coagulation of a mass of images which originally streamed from the primal faculty of human imagination like a fiery liquid, only in the invincible faith in this sun, this window, this table is a truth in itself, in short, only by forgetting that he himself is an artistically creative subject, does man live with any repose, security, and consistency.

Long before Rachel Carson invited the human imagination to experience reality from the perspective of marine creatures and before cognitive scientists explored what the world looks like through others’ eyes, Nietzsche adds:

It is even a difficult thing for [man] to admit to himself that the insect or the bird perceives an entirely different world from the one that man does, and that the question of which of these perceptions of the world is the more correct one is quite meaningless, for this would have to have been decided previously in accordance with the criterion of the correct perception, which means, in accordance with a criterion which is not available. But in any case it seems to me that “the correct perception” — which would mean “the adequate expression of an object in the subject” — is a contradictory impossibility.

[…]

So far as we can penetrate here — from the telescopic heights to the microscopic depths — everything is secure, complete, infinite, regular, and without any gaps. Science will be able to dig successfully in this shaft forever, and the things that are discovered will harmonize with and not contradict each other. How little does this resemble a product of the imagination, for if it were such, there should be some place where the illusion and reality can be divined. Against this, the following must be said: if each us had a different kind of sense perception — if we could only perceive things now as a bird, now as a worm, now as a plant, or if one of us saw a stimulus as red, another as blue, while a third even heard the same stimulus as a sound — then no one would speak of such a regularity of nature, rather, nature would be grasped only as a creation which is subjective in the highest degree.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: The Origin Story

Nietzsche shines a sidewise gleam on the abiding question of whether mathematics — that supreme catchpool and calculator of the laws of nature — is discovered, a fundamental fact of the universe, or invented, a human language:

After all, what is a law of nature as such for us? We are not acquainted with it in itself, but only with its effects, which means in its relation to other laws of nature — which, in turn, are known to us only as sums of relations. Therefore all these relations always refer again to others and are thoroughly incomprehensible to us in their essence. All that we actually know about these laws of nature is what we ourselves bring to them — time and space, and therefore relationships of succession and number. But everything marvelous about the laws of nature, everything that quite astonishes us therein and seems to demand explanation, everything that might lead us to distrust idealism: all this is completely and solely contained within the mathematical strictness and inviolability of our representations of time and space. But we produce these representations in and from ourselves with the same necessity with which the spider spins. If we are forced to comprehend all things only under these forms, then it ceases to be amazing that in all things we actually comprehend nothing but these forms. For they must all bear within themselves the laws of number, and it is precisely number which is most astonishing in things. All that conformity to law, which impresses us so much in the movement of the stars and in chemical processes, coincides at bottom with those properties which we bring to things. Thus it is we who impress ourselves in this way.

One of Salvador Dalí’s rare illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Nietzsche examines the relationship between language and science, and their analogous functions in the human quest to fathom reality:

We have seen how it is originally language which works on the construction of concepts, a labor taken over in later ages by science.

Just as the bee simultaneously constructs cells and fills them with honey, so science works unceasingly on this great columbarium of concepts, the graveyard of perceptions. It is always building new, higher stories and shoring up, cleaning, and renovating the old cells; above all, it takes pains to fill up this monstrously towering framework and to arrange therein the entire empirical world.

He locates the common impulse undergirding both language and science:

The drive toward the formation of metaphors is the fundamental human drive, which one cannot for a single instant dispense with in thought, for one would thereby dispense with man himself.

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Complement “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means, Toni Morrison on the power of language, and Bertrand Russell on our only effective self-defense against the manipulation of realty, then revisit Nietzsche on depression and the rehabilitation of hope, how to find yourself, what it really means to be a free spirit, and why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from difficulty.

BP

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

“What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science… Stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.”

Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the Unknown, the Horizons of the Knowable, and Why the Cross-Pollination of Disciplines is the Seedbed of Truth

In a recent MoMA talk about the lacuna between truth and meaning, I proposed that, just like there is a limit to the speed of light arising from the fundamental laws of physics that govern the universe, there might be a fundamental cognitive limit that keeps human consciousness from ever fully comprehending itself. After all, the moment a system becomes self-referential, it becomes susceptible to limitation and paradox — the logical equivalent to Audre Lorde’s memorable metaphor that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell articulated this splendidly when she wrote in her diary in 1854:

The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.

The century and a half since has been strewn with myriad scientific breakthroughs that have repeatedly transmuted what we once thought to be unknowable into what is merely unknown and therefore knowable, then eventually known. Evolutionary theory and the discovery of DNA have answered age-old questions considered unanswerable for all but the last blink of our species’ history. Einstein’s relativity and the rise of quantum mechanics have radically revised our understanding of the universe and the nature of reality.

And yet the central question remains: Against the infinity of the knowable, is there a fundamental finitude to our capacity for knowing?

That’s what English mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, explores with intelligent and imaginative zest in The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science (public library) — an inquiry into the puzzlement and promise of seven such unknowns, which Du Sautoy terms “edges,” marking horizons of knowledge beyond which we can’t currently see.

Marcus du Sautoy

In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s assertion that our appetite for seemingly unanswerable questions is what makes us human, Du Sautoy writes:

For any scientist the real challenge is not to stay within the secure garden of the known but to venture out into the wilds of the unknown.

[…]

The knowledge of what we don’t know seems to expand faster than our catalog of breakthroughs. The known unknowns outstrip the known knowns. And it is those unknowns that drive science. A scientist is more interested in the things he or she can’t understand than in telling all the stories we already know the answers to. Science is a living, breathing subject because of all those questions we can’t answer.

Among those are questions like whether the universe is infinite or finite, what dark matter is made of, the perplexity of multiverses, and the crowning curio of devising a model of reality that explains the nature and behavior of all energy and matter — often called a “theory of everything” or a “final theory” — unifying the two presently incompatible models of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which deals with the largest scale of physics, and quantum field theory, which deals with the smallest scale.

Du Sautoy, who believes — as do I — that “we are in a golden age of science,” considers the central ambivalence behind such a final theory and the very notion of knowing everything. Echoing artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous advice that “making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you,” he writes:

Would we want to know everything? Scientists have a strangely ambivalent relationship with the unknown. On the one hand, what we don’t know is what intrigues and fascinates us, and yet the mark of success as a scientist is resolution and knowledge, to make the unknown known.

And yet, too often, our human tendency when faced with unknowns is to capitulate to their unknowability prematurely — nowhere more famously, nor more absurdly, than in the proclamation Lord Kelvin, one of the most esteemed scientists of his era, made before the British Association of Science in 1900: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Elsewhere in Europe, Einstein was incubating the ideas that would precipitate humanity’s greatest leap of physics just five years later. Lord Kelvin had failed to see beyond the edge of the known.

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

A quarter century after James Gleick introduced the world to chaos theory, Du Sautoy selects chaos as the first of his seven “edges” and writes:

There are natural phenomena that will never be tamed and known. Chaos theory asserts that I cannot know the future of certain systems because they are too sensitive to small inaccuracies. Because we can never have complete knowledge of the present, chaos theory denies us access to the future.

That’s not to say that all futures are unknowable. Very often we are in regions that aren’t chaotic, where small fluctuations have little effect. This is why mathematics has been so powerful in helping us to predict and plan. The power of mathematical equations has allowed us to land spaceships on other planets, predict the paths of deadly typhoons on Earth, and model the effects of deadly viruses, allowing us to take action before they become a pandemic. But at other times we cannot accurately predict or control outcomes.

This, Du Sautoy notes, is representative of the common denominator between all of the “edges” he identifies — the idea, also reflected in the aforementioned problem of consciousness, that we might be fundamentally unable to grasp a system from a bird’s-eye perspective so long as we are caged inside that system. Perhaps the most pervasive manifestation of this paradox is language itself, the hallmark of our cognitive evolution — language contains and carries knowledge, but language is a system, be it the language of the written word or that of mathematics.

Du Sautoy reflects on this possible meta-limitation:

Many philosophers identify language as a problem when it comes to the question of consciousness. Understanding quantum physics is also a problem because the only language that helps us navigate its ideas is mathematics.

At the heart of this tendency is what is known as “the paradox of unknowability” — the logical proof that unless you know all there is to be known, there will always exist for you truths that are inherently unknowable. And yet truth can exist beyond logic because logic itself has fundamental limits, which the great mathematician Kurt Gödel so elegantly demonstrated in the 1930s.

Illustration from a vintage children’s adaptation of Micromégas, Voltaire’s trailblazing science fiction homage to Newton

So where does this leave us? With an eye to his seven “edges,” Du Sautoy writes:

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that science gives us verisimilitudinous knowledge of the universe; that is, it gives us a narrative that appears to describe reality. We believe that a theory that makes our experience of the world intelligible is one that is close to the true nature of the world, even if philosophers tell us we’ll never know. As Niels Bohr said, “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

In consonance with my foundational belief that the cross-pollination of disciplines is what catalyzes the combinatorial creativity out of which every meaningful new idea is born, Du Sautoy adds:

Science flourishes when we share the unknowable with other disciplines. If the unknowable has an impact on how we lead our lives, then it is worth having ways to probe the consequences of choosing an answer to an unknowable. Music, poetry, stories, and art are powerful tools for exploring the implications of the unknowable.

[…]

Chaos theory implies that … humans are in some ways part of the unknowable. Although we are physical systems, no amount of data will help us completely predict human behavior. The humanities are the best language we have for understanding as much as we can about what it is to be human.

Studies into consciousness suggest boundaries beyond which we cannot go. Our internal worlds are potentially unknowable to others. But isn’t that one of the reasons we write and read novels? It is the most effective way to give others access to that internal world.

What we cannot know creates the space for myth, for stories, for imagination, as much as for science. We may not know, but that doesn’t stop us from creating stories, and these stories are crucial in providing the material for what one day might be known. Without stories, we wouldn’t have any science at all.

Complement the thoroughly fascinating The Great Unknown, which examines the implications of these seven elemental unknowns for everything from consciousness to our experience of time to the future of artificial intelligence, with Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, philosopher Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, and artist Ann Hamilton on the creative power of not-knowing.

BP

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