Christopher Potter

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What I believe

By Christopher Potter, Jun 4 2014 02:30PM

I’ve been reading David Plante’s diaries, the first of what may prove to be several volumes, this one covering the period of his life in London from 1966. I’ve been reading Pepys’ diaries too and didn’t immediately realise that I was leaping only in time and not place between the two. Trying to work out what has changed and what stayed the same has been part of the appeal of reading both side by side. Perhaps that is the appeal of any engaging diary, the chance to compare life now and life then. It probably doesn’t matter if it is three centuries or a year ago, things change and things stay the same. For Pepys and Plante the tragicomic humanity of sexual desire clearly a constant. The struggles of Plante and his sophisticated grandee friends as they attempt to master their sexual urges, are as entertaining as Pepys’ attempts to honour (he invariably fails) his monthly vows of continence. During the plague year of 1665 Pepys discovers that he has, curiously, never been happier, richer, possessed of better friends, had more sex, even though, as he observes, he might well be dead within 48 hours. Post Freud we may be able to name our drives, but we still give in to them. Does that make us more sophisticated or merely heighten the tragi-comedy? Self-awareness may be a modern ‘advancement,’ but the essential mystery of human beings seems to be limitless.

That humans kill each other is alas another historical invariant , and so it seems is the desire to kill oneself, a desire that has a particular gruesome fascination all of its own, or so it does for me; not that I have any desire to kill myself you understand (not today at any rate), but I wonder at the extremity that pushes others to that act. I was recently at a retrospective of the work of Mike Kelley, an artist I hadn’t heard of before. That he had killed himself in 2012 aged 57 necessarily coloured everything. Why? was the question that hovered over each work. The varied artefacts entirely filled PS1, the avant garde branch situated in Queens of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a considerable building on several floors. Like much modern art, mere description tells us very little: sometimes the experience of the thing itself is no better than its description (perhaps a definition of bad art, as if the cake were identical with the recipe), or conversely a description may not sound enticing at all but the experience of the piece be transformative. Kelley’s work mostly falls into the latter camp. Here is a room in which planet-like formations fabricated out of 100s of used soft toys, hang menacingly; the creatures’ faces and front parts turned in on themselves as if at some point in time these only-seemingly benign, germinating pink or yellow bodies will burst open, violently. Futuristic-looking odorisers along the walls offset the kind of unpleasant smells you might expect to emanate from toys discovered and collected from off the streets. Here is an over-size representation of the astronaut John Glenn made in part out of broken pottery. I am moved by it for reasons I cannot begin to enunciate. Most of one floor is devoted to glass sculptures, scale models of Superman’s home town Kandor on the planet Krpton; on the walls videos of the same glass structures, filled with bubbling purple and red fluids, perhaps the experiments of some unseen mad professor. A room of possible bird houses - both instructions on how to make them and examples of the finished structures – initially seem to belong to the aesthetic of an entirely different artist, but then something clicks and they, too, show themselves to be part of the same unifying – both dark and playful – vision: Here are my materials, behold my art!

To my surprise - because the paintings themselves are not particularly fine - where I linger longest is in a corridor hung with huge portraits of some twenty or so writers; attached to each image is a single declarative often provocative and unsourced quotation. Dostoevsky apparently wrote or somewhere said that ‘If you say that everything – chaos, darkness, anathema – can be reduced to mathematical formulae – then man will go insane on purpose to have no judgement – and to behave as he likes.’ I don’t know if this was the particular dark struggle that Kelley was caught up in but the line chills me.

Back home back into Plante’s Diaries I come across these lines – Plante is quoting his friend Frank Kermode (like Pepys, Plante is a great name dropper), a passage taken from his critical work An Appetite for Poetry: ‘We understand a whole by means of its parts, and the parts by means of the whole. But this “circle” seems to imply that we can understand nothing – the whole is made of parts we cannot understand until it exists, and we cannot see the whole without understanding the parts. Something, therefore, must happen, some intuition by which we break out of the situation – a leap, a divination… whereby we are enabled to understand both part and whole.’ The sentiment might just as well apply, as is surely intended, to the problem of what it is that a scientific investigation of the world actually finds out, as to how to read a poem.

On the whole, scientists don’t see what the problem is, even a scientist (he is also a novelist) as enlightened as Alan Lightman. On the first page of his new book, The Accidental Universe, and in the manner of a credo, he writes: ‘I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real… and exist independently of our minds.’ I am reminded of similar affirmations of the reality of the material world I have noted over the years and which have likewise drawn me up short. The usual culprits are implicated: Daniel Dennett says somewhere that ‘there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter – the physical stuff of physics, chemistry and physiology.’ In almost the same words the philosopher Julian Baggini – author of Atheism in the Oxford series of Very Short Introductions - writes that ‘there is only one kind of stuff in the universe and it is physical. Out of this stuff comes minds, beauty, emotions, moral values – in short the whole gamut of phenomena that gives richness to human life.’ And of course Richard Dawkins who writes, as if channelling Lucretius: ‘The laws of physics have conspired to make the collisions of atoms produce plants, kangaroos, insects and us.’ ‘Specify the particle arrangement,’ the physicist Brian Greene says, ‘and you’ve specified everything.’ I find it curious that in a world as essentially cabalistic as the world of science is that scientists generally choose, even though both worlds are presented to them, the concrete over the abstract: particle over wave, body over mind, space over time, mass over energy. (Though Einstein – who had a mystical side to him - first wrote his famous equation in the form m=E/c2, he soon realised that energy is the deeper mystery.)

I am a layman long interested in the history and philosophy of science. To my surprise I have found that although most scientists are passionate about what they do, and many are deeply interested in the history of science, very few have much interest in philosophical explorations of what it is that they are doing when they measure the world. ‘Philosophy is dead,’ Stephen Hawkings writes in the first page of his latest book The Grand Design, a book that is itself highly speculative, and philosophical. On his laboratory door Niels Bohr pinned a notice that read ‘Philosophers keep out. Work in progress.’ ‘Philosophy is to science what pornography is to sex,’ says the biologist Steve Jones; ‘If you ask in how many cases in the past has a philosopher successfully solved a problem, as far as we can say there are no cases,’ are the words of another biologist, Francis Crick. The neuroscientist Christof Koch puts this seemingly widespread opinion most brutally: ‘Philosophers have been profoundly wrong in almost every question under the sun over the last 2,000 years.’ When I read the philosopher Slavoj Zizek describe philosophy as ‘the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours,’ I wonder at the distance between science and philosophy and what it signifies. I think I know.

Scientists have an unshakeable faith in the existence of an external world that is real and measurable. Any doubt tries their patience. To doubt the existence of a world that can be measured is to throw doubt on the whole scientific endeavour. Science is so powerful and has built up such a body of evidence in support of what it does that such philosophical doubts can easily be laughed to scorn, even the long history of doubt that stretches from Plato via Bishop Berkeley to the increasingly unheard idealists of today. The theoretical physicist Jean-Markus Schwindt, voices a rare belief among scientists when he says: ‘I do not think that mind exists in the physical world, I rather think that the physical world exists within mind.’ I find it curious that science, which is about ever-subtler measurement, is mostly set against subtle philosophical argument. We do not need to go as far as Schwindt and Bishop Berkeley and believe that nothing exists except as a substrate of consciousness (but we might note in passing that it is perhaps unfortunate that such a belief should be technically named idealism, set against its rather more manly opposite, materialism), and if personally I wouldn’t call myself an idealist, but an agnostic even here, yet I sense that for scientists the knot is Gordian and best slashed through rather than untied.

Richard Dawkins does not ignore the problem but takes a drastic approach. He promotes a notion, certainly supportable, that particle physics pushes the story of our origins even beyond matter to a kind of energetic nothingness out of which matter randomly and causelessly comes into existence: ‘literally everything’, he says, ‘springing from almost nothing – a thought extremely hard to comprehend and believe.’ The ‘almost’ is telling. In Dawkins view scientific progress will, eventually, take away the ‘almost’ too, and ‘nothing’ be revealed as the primal material from which reality is woven.

Alan Lightman is surely correct when he writes that ‘the great majority of scientists believe that a complete and final set of laws governing all physical phenomenon exists, and that we are making continual progress toward discovery of those laws. That belief is part of the central doctrine of science.’ This is the widely held view - and yet still my jaw drops. I’m reminded of John Updike who once said in support of his Christian faith, that he could not quite make the leap into unfaith, or perhaps more appropriately I think of the Nobel-prize winning physicist John Eccles and his slightly despairing declaration: ‘I have followed the materialist story of our origins – nay, of my origins. But I have grave misgivings. As an act of faith it requires so much.’

If I cannot join the fraternity (where are the women?) it’s not that I do not believe in particles, but that I do not think when it comes to doing science that it is necessary to believe in anything at all; that’s the beauty of the scientific method, it just works. It is doubt itself (I believe?) that is at the heart of the scientific endeavour. The scientific method works not because we believe that particles exist, it works whether we believe in them or not. Science searches not for the truth out of belief, but for things truer out of doubt. I think of Niels Bohr who, in response to a colleague’s surprise that he of all people should believe that the rabbit’s foot pinned to his laboratory door will bring him luck, said ‘I’m told it will bring me luck whether I believe in it or not.’

Not all scientists fit Lightman’s characterisation. In his recent book Time Reborn, Lee Smolin argues that the belief that there are fundamental physical laws turns scientific investigation into a kind of religion. If we are to take evolution seriously, he argues, then presumably even the so-called laws themselves should be seen as being flexible and evolving. It is, he says, mathematics that is the problem. Mathematics appears to be something outside and independent of ourselves that sits through eternity waiting to be found out by humans (and presumably by other life-forms that discover how to think logically). Like the God of monotheistic religions, mathematics – in which the laws of physics are ultimately written – brushes science up against the eternal and unchanging. Mathematics, the mathematician F de Sua once wrote, ‘is the only religion that has proved itself a religion.’ Einstein, who spent 10 years working on the mathematical language in which to write the equations of his general theory of relativity understood that a universe written in and underpinned by mathematics must exist eternally and unchanging. In a much quoted letter written after the death of his friend Michele Besso, and a month before his own death, he said: ‘Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion’.

Smolin, a lone-ish voice, argues for a universe that is not at bottom eternal and unchanging as Einstein believed it to be, but one that evolves into constant novelty. Einstein’s universe assumes a foundation in space, Smolin’s one in time. But either way surely the mysteries never entirely disappear. If I must believe in something, I feel as sure as I am about anything that that ‘almost’ is not going to go away. The more we find out about the universe, the subtler it becomes. Whatever the nothing is that the universe originated out of, somewhere within it is the everything that it became, heavily disguised perhaps and swept under the carpet of the universe’s starting conditions.

That science tells the kind of stories it tells - currently how everything in the universe is the evolved outcome of a patch of energy that expanded in just the right way at the Big Bang - has a kind of inevitability about it. We may start out with an assumption that the world is out there and made out of things, but if we acknowledge that somehow the world is also a whole – as most scientists do – then where else is there to go other than to construct ever-more elaborate accounts of how the one leads to the other. If I can not myself quite make the leap into belief (into theism or atheism) yet I see no conflict between accounts of the world that begin with separation – science - and those that begin with wholeness – say Buddhism. (The words holy and wholly are similar for a reason.)

Where I think scientists – most at least – make an unnecessary leap is in taking as ‘true’ this assumption of an external world made out of something (ultimately today particles as seen as the excitations of various sophisticated fields of energy). Why not say instead that science is the question: If the world were made out of something, what would such a world look like? Turns out that that is the single most provoking question human beings can ask of the world, because it looks as if the search to answer such a question has no end, except to deliver ever more sophisticated accounts of how those things are related together to make a whole. But we never do quite get to the whole. The bind that Kermode understood.

For me the philosopher who truly appreciates what is at stake is Immanuel Kant. He understood that because everything in the universe has grown up together there is no escape from our human perspective. What scientists are measuring are the results of that co-evolution: the separation of things is an illusion. And anyway, if we were truly separate from the world outside of ourselves, what – as a Buddhist might ask - would be in the gap? Which is not to argue that what science uncovers is not real, just that it is not what we might think it is. The material world exists and we live in it, but it is not ‘reality’ only a human perspective on what is. If we humans seem always to imagine ourselves to be at the centre of things it is because everything necessarily appears to be at the centre when perspective cannot be escaped: the appearance of centrality is an illusion too. We cannot know what the perspective of an atom or of a bat might look like, but the story we tell from our perspective more than suggests that the atom’s or bat’s perspectives are very different from our own, and no less illusory. It is ironic that scientists who remind us that we humans don’t amount to much – ‘We are conscious automata,’ (Thomas Huxley), ‘Just a bunch of neurons…You, your joys, and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,’ (Francis Crick), ‘Survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes,’ (Richard Dawkins) – place science in a position of privilege, not seeming to comprehend that science too has its own perspective.

This fundamental question of what it is that science does can be framed in other equivalent ways. Science is also an exploration of reality that does without the intercession of the supernatural. How far can we go in such an exploration? We can explore forever it seems. The God described by this argument is often called the God of the gaps, as if such a God is limited and backed into a corner. But surely what we might expect in a supernatural entity is at the very least elusiveness. If the nature of the physical universe at its furthest extremes requires the re-casting of what existence and substance mean, then I think we owe God as much.

Why does any of this matter?

Any belief held too tightly is dangerous. Materialism is a response to monotheism, both believe in progress towards some final outcome: a first or second coming, an Apocalypse, the heat death of the universe, a final physical account of the universe written in mathematics. Nothing wrong with any of that. But material fundamentalism mirrors religious fundamentalism: both deny metaphor and embrace literalism. Religion and science are both capable of acknowledging that the world is always beyond our understanding, but where religious and scientific extremism meet is in their failure to believe in human beings. Scientists weave a finer and finer material, yet still this cloth does not look much like the natural world, nor do its intelligent logical machines look much like human beings. Out of our now long habit of living in the material world we are apt to mistake our man-made world for the real thing and find nature foreign to us, somewhere else, outside. A philosopher once told the poet Anne Carson about the existence of a German phrase that means that which cannot be overtaken, das Unumgängliche. What cannot be overtaken? For the moment at least: light, the universe, God, nature, human beings. As Dostoevsky realised, reductionism held to as a faith may drive you mad. Humans are inconsistent, and illogical. Science will continue to uncover laws that underpin human behaviour, and expose both what makes us consistent and what can be captured by logic. But I feel confident that human beings – as recorded by our artists and diarists - will always be, not just one step ahead, but somewhere else.

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