Sunday, 26 May 2013

Marilynne Robinson in conversation

This conversation, billed as "The Mystery We Are", was recorded in 2012.
It's on the Internet.

I have just listened to and enjoyed this conversation between alstro-physicist Marcello Gleiser and writer Marilynne Robinson, conducted by Christa Tippet. I found the podcast having already discovered Marilynne Robinson's book "Absence of Mind", which I return to often.

At one or two points in the conversation, the physicist Richard Feynman is mentioned. Marilynne Robinson refers to writing by Feynman in which he wonders how it is that my self can persist, and I can have memories of my self, when over the course of time the atoms of my brain are replaced. Robinson reminds us that the English empiricist philosopher John Locke arrived at this thought in the 17th or early 18th century, to reiterate, I think, that thought is capable of reaching places from a time many would regard as pre-scientific, or at least backward in some sense, compared to the present. Marcello Gleiser refers to Feynman as one of his personal heroes. 
There was also some discussion of the role of the words "describe" and "explain" as used in popular science, and a consensus seemed to be reached in this conversation that describe is the better word, because it preserves a notion of incompleteness to our thought.

While I listened I was reminded of a wonderfully entertaining lecture given by Richard Feynman which I think illustrates both the tendency of popular science to want to diminish mind, and also the awareness Feynman had of treating mathematics as descriptive while also being mindful of the "explanatory power" of any physical theory.  The lecture is called "The Relationship Between Mathematics & Physics", from 1965, and is on YouTube and other places.

It is Feynman's closing statement to this lecture that has interested me, in which, really I think out of a feeling of frustration or even inadequacy, he wants to admonish people of what he calls "the other culture" (by which he seems to mean philosophers) who wonder how or why it is that our thinking, our mathematics, should, so to speak, fit the world. Feynman says, with not a little.force and even animus, "The horizons are limited which permit such people to imagine that the centre of the universe of interest in man".

Given M Gleiser's view that science needs a kind of aesthetic shift towards recovering human "centrality" in the universe, and his admiration for Feynman as a scientist, I think Feynman's statement, and it's context, is interesting here. From Marilynne Robinson's side, she has been concerned to show the ways that the style of thinking evinced by popularisers of science, in their writing, tends to close down questioning in advance. So again, I think Richard Feynman's performance of this lecture, and his closing statement, is interesting and relevant.

Feynman's lecture was given at a time when there seems to have been a considerable cultural stand-off between the disciplines of scientces and humanities. When Feynman refers to the "other culture" I think he has in mind a book called "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" by CP Snow, which was published in 1959. This book shows a personal attitude (on the part of Snow) hostile, for various complcated interesting reasons, to the kind of things valued in humanities academic disciplines. I think it is a book which contains many of the "declension" Marilynne Robinson describes as common to what she calls "para-scientific" literature.

I wonder if Feynman would have been quite so antipathetic towards those of the "other culture" if he had been alive to the importance to Einstein of Kant's attempt to answer that very question of why our minds seem to fit the universe such that we can have knowledge of it? It seems to me that Karl Popper was driven to develop his adaptation of Kantian epistemology and philosophy of science in opposition to the attitude that mathematics is in direct contact with the world. He is the philosopher of science who would be at pains to support the use of the word "description" in preference to "explanation", precisely to deter the feeling underlying scientism or positivism that we have achieved complete knowledge. Again, I wonder if Feynman would have had any interest at all that people like Popper, or Kant or Einstein for that matter, could have found interesting any kind of problem to do with why our mathematics works. My feeling is probably not.
I write because I listen to a conversation like this one and come to anticipate mention of, say, Kant, or Popper, or Heidegger, or Wittgenstein. Popper seems important to me, because he makes explicit the quality of science that makes of it an outgrowth of mythical thinking, and of the same character as mythical thinking. For Popper there is no cognitive divide, as Marilynne Robinson speaks of in "Absence of Mind", that elevates our thinking so greatly that we can be dismissive of the past. His work is quite deflationary in that sense.
At the beginning of the conversation, Marcello Gleiser refers to the centrality of the notion of conflicting values in the work of the one-time linguistic philosopher and intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin. Not long ago, I was very motivated to research and get to the bottom of what I had come to regard as a characteristic antipathy towards, or blindness for, the kinds of thing valued in humanistic or humanities learning. It was because I had found this antipathy in myself at a young age, and it has had a huge impact on my life. So I was very grateful to come to (not long before finding Marilynne Robinson's book) an essay by Isaiah Berlin called "The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities". I think Berlin locates a time and a place, after Descartes, when certain human studies are preserved from the limitless domain of mathematics, in the person of the Italian philosopher Vico.

I am very concerned about the closing-down quality of thinking that goes into the "para-scientific" literature, because it comes from people who are popularly regarded as thinkers par-excellence when, even before any thoughts are put down, the tone of presentation is already conveying to the reader or listener that all the thinking has already been done and "he has it". It is not from science that we acquire the ability to understand the significance of style in communication, but from attending to qualities of feeling. Yet, armed with facts and bolstered by prestige and plaudits, what para-scientific thinking seems to push onto impressionable minds is that there is nothing for me to learn. The reader finds himself participating in the writer's assumption of completeness. An opening into what could possibly make of my style of presentation, of my voice and tone and choice of words, anything remotely significant is closed off in advance, always in advance. Becoming aware of this in oneself is disquieting. It is painful to find great insight in an essay like "Modern Science, Mathematics and Metaphysics" by Martin Heidegger, only to find that the "scientific world view", sanctioned by virtue of its success, and pressed into one, casts those insights as meaningless.

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