Thursday, January 17, 2008

Education and Experience

Emerson wrote this in "The American Scholar":

The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can find, — so entire, so boundless. Far, too, as her splendors shine, system on system shooting like rays, upward, downward, without centre, without circumference, — in the mass and in the particle, nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind.

In these words, we find an early compelling account of the idea of experiential education. I'm sure it sounded as strange to Emerson's listeners as it does to us today to think that the scholar is the one most engaged with the wild spectacle of nature. The new scholar that Emerson dreamed would be like nature: "without beginning, without end...circular power returning into itself." So different from the notion that we have today, that the scholar must attach himself to his idea, no matter the cost, as if experience were a maelstrom and his thought a life-raft.

But has the stream of experience grown so violent and unpredictable that we are afraid to let loose of our idea-rafts? Is it possible to imagine a scholar who does not advocate a view, but instead demonstrates a mind as wide and as flexible as experience itself? We would, perhaps, say that such a scholar lacked intellectual rigor or integrity, but it is possible to make a distinction between rigor and the rigor mortis of academic prose.

My dissertation project worries about what we mean when we say we ought to engage experience. Emerson's experience here is wonderful, romantic, inspiring--but a far cry from our experience. Do we see stars or traffic lights? Sunsets or TV sets? Cycles of power or the daily grind? Men and women conversing or pundits preaching? We need a different aesthetic: perhaps Beckett or Foster Wallace...Emerson is too romantic--causing us to daydream, rather to engage. How would "The American Scholar" be written today? What words would inspire us to a richer life of the mind, today--one that does not build life rafts, but life itself?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Boltzmann's Brain

This NYTimes article on cosmology headed the "most emailed" list for a few hours this morning. I think that this graphic explains the view best. The article's position on this popularity list raises a couple of questions. First, how is it that scientists could hold such a strange view of the universe? And second, why do readers of the New York Times care so much (at least this morning) about this totally strange view?

My problem with Boltzmann's Brain theory (which basically suggests that the probability that we are brains in vats is much higher than the probability that our ordinary commonsense world exists) is that it is not an empirical theory, but a mathematical one. It starts with an idea, the notion that matter is basically a collection of atoms sitting in empty space, and then sets out to ask whether or not our current universe is consistent with that idea. Well, when it turns out that our universe and the original idea aren't too compatible, the reaction that these cosmologists have is to abandon the universe as we know it and hypothesize that our universe is mere appearance. To make this move is to step out of empirical science and into dogmatic idealism--to hold the view that ideas are truer than experience.

For the empirically minded, actuality trumps probability every time. That it is extremely unlikely (on a certain theory) that the universe would exist in its current form is no argument against its actually existing in its present form. In fact, the probability that the universe is as it is seems to me to be incredibly low, as many things are up to chance and could have been otherwise. Lottery winners understand this fact better than anyone else. That there was, in reality, only the most minute probability that they could have won is of no consequence to the winner who hold the million dollar check.

Why are these cosmological theories found so compelling if they replace a rich actuality with the pale image of mathematical probability? My sense is that a clean and clear image of particles floating in space is much more attractive to folks than the complicated, confused, vague, and shifting world in which we actually live. There is something in us that prefers to think of ourselves as brains in vats--because a brain in a vat doesn't have to makes sense of the complicated situations and events that surround us. But even this is an idle hope. If this world were mere illusion, and we were all figments of each others' imagination, then this illusion would be all that we have. Our image of ourselves would be just as valuable to maintain as our real selves now are. And the imagined sicknesses, deaths, joys, and triumphs would be just as heart-rending or fulfilling as the obstacles and pleasures we presently experience.

That we can even conceive of the possibility that we might all be brains in a vat speaks to the intensity with which modern life produces a sense of alienation. We want to take refuge from the hail of experience beneath the shelter of a clear and distinct mathematical idea. If we were just brains in a vat and had no responsibility, no decisions to make, no causes to serve, failure would finally be extinguished from the universe, and onwards we could roll, smoothly and without consequence.

Of course, with the elimination of failure and decay comes the elimination of practically everything else we care for: friends, family, and work. These most precious of relationships are valuable because they are contingent, because they grow and develop (and falter and fail), and because they will come to an end. It is out of this radical contingency, the unbearable lightness of being, that we craft our fragile lives. Because life is fraught with failure, we must respond with care, concern, and passion. Any view that denies this basic character of the universe--the actuality of responsibility--is one that I oppose.
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