July 3, 2017: I just can’t shake that dual nature thing

Sometimes, like today, I ask myself, “Did I do the right thing?” My cats and dogs now own me. My house and yard enslave me. Hundreds of books call me day and night from the shelves for attention. Before that thing happened, I let these matters go. While pressed by schedules, rushed by deadlines, comrades rang my home office to ask, “Does that design work, or not?”

I had excuses for an unkempt house, an unmowed lawn, and why I failed to give Scooby and Tiger their walk as they sat side by side staring at me. And just for emphasis, Cooty, the cat who managed house affairs, sat behind them, adding a pair of eyes to the plea. But I was busy being responsible. They wanted daddy to make money for food and treats, “Right, kitty, kitty?”

But then, a few years ago, that thing happened. It was a decision. Some neurons in my head activated somehow. They began to form new connections, and all sorts of biochemical things commenced that I’ve yet to read about. This lead to new networks that generated new ideas, and those ideas stimulated emotions, and those emotions told my body to start moving in the outside world.

Now, I’m not so sure those neurons are really my own, but whoever they belong to, here’s what they said, “Leave a good paying, highly respected position, where you know and enjoy what you’re doing, and go do things that pay nothing, garner no respect, where you know very little.” As a founder of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, once said, “It’s so thrilling not to know how to do something.” My neurons reminded me of that. And so it was, from this strange sequence of events I left my career behind to make time for one of the most impractical endeavors to the American mind: the pursuit of art and the humanities.

What?

Why?

For one, art and science share the same transcendent experience. On those deep dives into reality when its laws become murky, one is filled with anticipation. Until those neurons link, and you’re plugged directly into nature. It’s electric. Ditto for art. For me it’s painting, writing, and studies in history with the philosophy that attends it, as well written books are obviously fine art. Each time I hit that brush stroke that works, craft a line of my own that says it all, or discover history I never knew in a book, I want to jump to the window and shout to the neighbors, “Did you see that?”

“Art,” Picasso said, “is the lie that tells the truth.” About us. That’s why myths work, great paintings, music, novels, sculpture, and high poetry that rhymes, like Pushkin. [1] Science is the avenue to Truth in nature. Art, the avenue to Truth in humans. And that’s the other reason I decided to pursue it. It’s that nature, human nature, that I decided to focus on because it’s so murky, and odd, I can’t stop staring at it, filled with anticipation, in wait of that connection that explains us.

At the heart of our oddity is this dual nature thing we pondered last time. Remember E.O. Wilson’s hypothesis, that we evolved through natural selection of individual survival traits, and group (community) survival traits. If true, selfishness and selflessness are woven together in the genes.

This dichotomy in humans is reminiscent, only by analogy, of another in physics: wave particle duality in the atomic world. [2] Wave particle duality can be demonstrated by a common college experiment. Cut open two slits in an opaque card. Let the card intercept a laser beam so dim that just one photon of light at a time passes through the slits. Beyond the card place a photodiode array that clicks each time a photon strikes. Let this go on for a while and what shows up on the array? A pattern created by interfering waves. Like the interference of waves off the bow of two boats (by analogy, two slits in the card). If their wave peaks meet in phase, they produce a “freak” wave, added together, twice as big. If they meet out of phase, they subtract to flatten the water’s surface. Yet the photodiode clicked each time a photon hit. It’s a particle. But if so, how can an individual photon interfere with itself from the other slit as though it were a wave? Doesn’t it have to pick one slit or the other to pass through? Dual nature in the quantum world—kooky. Like humans are kooky.

Through human history we see civilizations emphasize one component of human nature or the other, then battle back and forth between the two. The ancient Hebrews chose a stern and ridged spirituality that fostered belonging and survival in a harsh desert surrounded by hostile powers. At the same time, in their own rocky terrain, Greeks lavished their monuments with nude statues, worshiped the power of mathematics, and threatened their own belonging with philosophy that never stops asking if what we think is true is true. To the Hebrews, dogma was to be obeyed. For the Greeks, dogma was to be challenged. It’s the problem of Athens and Jerusalem. Violent collisions between these outlooks are a repeating theme in history. We see this dual nature today in America’s hyper-polarization: belongers vs. individualists, believers vs. skeptics, decisive-seat-of-the-pants-no-nonsense-doers vs. experts.

Michael Shermer and Chantal Delsol—whom we met last time—demonstrate this in regards to that fundamental element of Western political philosophy, individual rights. “The Rights Revolution of the past three centuries,” writes Shermer, “have focused almost entirely on the freedom of individuals, not collectives… The first principle of survival and flourishing of sentient beings is grounded in the biological fact that the discrete organism is the principal target of natural selection and social evolution [contra-Wilson], not the group... This drive to survive…and therefore freedom to pursue the fulfillment of that essence is a natural right.” [3] While for Delsol, “We suffer from the illusion that democracy’s destiny will be fulfilled if we apply its mechanisms on the widest scale possible. We cling to the illusion that this will happen if we expand its founding principles to the utmost…with no exceptions and no limitations, convinced any expansion of rights corresponds to progress.” While religious man held each moment of this life as a mold for the next, ideological man thought his work for a “radiant future symbolically inscribed his acts…in an immortal future society,” says Delsol. “Contemporary man no longer has at his disposal anything more than his own limited existence, of which his death constitutes the absolute end, not only biologically, but spiritually, socially, symbolically.” [4]

I absolutely, positively agree with…

Both.

Central to political philosophy (which is what this blog is supposed to be about) stands the question, What is the right way for humans to live so we might flourish, as Aristotle urged. Two thousand years later with the same concern for our dual nature in mind, Alexander Hamilton asked if societies are capable of “establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend…on accident and force.” [5] And still we don’t know.

So on days like today, I wonder, should I have stayed with rocket science where problems are easy? Is the study of art and the humanities really going to help answer deeper questions about humans? Maybe that was a rogue neuron.

Until next time. The first Monday of September, the 4th, 2017.



[1] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975
Rhyme, says Polanyi, is the intentional separation of words from their factual use in information exchange, converted by rhyme to a transcendent state, toward that of music and myth. While modern poetry is a short story read in staccato cadence.
[2] Despite wild claims and fortunes made by Deepak Chopra, but for devices made from quantum laws, they apply only to the quantum world.
[3] Michael Shermer Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, And Freedom, Holt and Company, 2015, pg.12-13
[4] Chantal Delsol Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI Books, 2003> pg. 121, 176
[5] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, #1, Random House Modern Library, (1787-1788), pg. 3
Tweaked for clarity, 1/27/19
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Published on July 03, 2017 08:39
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