Posts tagged erwin Schrödinger

May 2nd, 2012

Objectivity and Art

As a Popperian, I believe that the distinction between the objective and the subjective (or the relative) has been misunderstood and hyperbolized. Perhaps nothing is objective, but that does not mean that all is subjective. Newton’s proposed laws of motion were, for centuries, “objectively” true; confirmed by all experimental tests, they formed the basis of thousands of discoveries in physics and other fields. These discoveries were themselves experimentally tested, and themselves led to thousands of discoveries in the exponential fashion to which we’ve become accustomed.

But Newton was wrong; his laws were inaccurate. In David Deutsch’s terms, they were very, very good misconceptions, just as Einstein’s better ideas are very, very good misconceptions that will eventually be replaced by even better, more accurate, deeper ideas that explain more with less. This process is progressive: science gets better and better, even though it is purely the creation of “subjective” human conjecture —imagination— tested against reality for utility. We might say that the history of human knowledge is one of conjectures which are never complete or objective but which are ever-improving. To be ever-improving, they must be moving towards something; if they cannot reach it, they approach it as a line does an asymptote. Science asymptotically approaches objective, complete truth, never arriving but getting closer and closer (1) . It is not objective —as the work of humans, how could it be?— but neither is it aimless or subjective.

But what about art? We do not tend to think that art is progressive. Indeed, the attitude of the age treats art as a private utterance, as pure subjectivity, or at best as a personal religion of some entertaining use to others. One epistemological consequence of the democratic ethos, unmoored from axiomatic values, is that we struggle with the idea of objectivity in anything, although we incoherently exempt the sciences from our anxious doubt. But this is a temporary phase, a confusion. It is not the case that art is purely subjective, aimless, without teleology or purpose; it is rather the case that art, like science, improves over time because it asymptotically approaches something. It happens to be the same “something” that science hews to: reality.

Consider the following work of art from tens of thousands of years ago:

image

From Chauvet, this depiction is among the earliest instances of art; it features a range of animals including, most prominently, cave lions. From tens of thousands of years later, in the 19th century, here is the head of a lion painted by Théodore Géricault:

image

It’s obvious that this is a better depiction, in part because we can reasonably assume that the intent of these two artists, across so much time, was similar: to capture and convey something essential about the lion. This intent was almost certainly inexplicit for the ancient artist, and may have expressed itself in other ways which recur throughout the history of art. For example, artists have occasionally conceived of their mission in ceremonial, religious, or supernatural terms, imagining that by performing acts in concert with images they might control reality (2). In later centuries, they might consider their art in more subtle religious, political, pedagogical, ideological, or emotional terms. But a sufficiently abstract definition might cover most cases:

Art seeks to virtualize phenomena for human benefit.

By “virtualize,” I mean only that what art offers us it offers on our terms. One can experience tragedy when a loved-one dies; one can know the awe and power of the lion when one sees it enter a cave in which one’s family is camped. Art seeks to make these phenomena, and the meanings they provide, available to you apart from the uncontrollable and contingent world, for a variety of reasons. Through art, we are enriched by experiences with less risk of suffering or injury; experiences are made more portable and reproducible, and are freed from temporality; we can begin at least to portray what we imagine, even if we cannot yet build it; and so on. Art, then, supports the same accelerated development of knowledge that consciousness, metaphor and language, and reason support, and all are related. Whereas we once built knowledge accidentally and slowly, when the inexplicit knowledge of environment and utility embodied by genes would lead to those genes’ replication and spread, we now have a range of means for building knowledge rapidly and at little cost. We can, at our discretion, experience alternative modes of being, the lives of others, worlds we’ve never seen; we can be taken deep within ourselves or so far away that we can no longer remember our names.

And from this, we learn. From art, from the virtualization of phenomena far removed from our practical realities, we derive values, politics, and purposes, in addition to whatever assortment of facts and information the art carries with it. Some essential values we seem incapable of arriving at any other way, especially in the absence of axioms or authority: compassion and empathy, for example, depend on the recognition of the humanness of others but are hardly logically compulsory propositions; art is unparalleled at conveying, in experiential and therefore broadly-intelligible terms, the bases of such moral notions, even to the ignorant and resistant. (3) Art is where we find meanings we cannot reason and experiences that we cannot otherwise have; that we recognize the value and utility of these experiences and meanings but cannot yet rationally justify them doesn’t mean that they’re purely subjective. The fact that our ancestors didn’t understand the stars by which they navigated didn’t make those stars subjective either. They were simply little-understood, but their utility was evident to all. The same is true of art and culture, emergent phenomena we dismiss because of weaknesses in our contemporary philosophies. What we cannot reduce we pretend doesn’t exist.

The consequences of purpose

If we say that “art seeks to virtualize phenomena for human benefit,” we can begin to critique art apart from distracting historicisms. This liberates us from, among other traps, referentiality and academic preoccupations. We can attempt to discuss art concretely in terms of its aims:

  • Does the work virtualize phenomena well? Does it use the best forms for the phenomena it pursues? Does it use effective available techniques for their virtualization? Are the relevant parts of the phenomena captured and expressed? Does the work have a purpose, and are its aesthetic choices suitable for that purpose?
  • Is the work novel? If it isn’t, it won’t “work,” for just as sound science that discovers what science already knows is redundant and contributes nothing, repetitive art with cliched expressions, moribund forms, or a derivative purpose is redundant and contributes nothing. Novelty is what permits consciousness to attend to phenomena, and is therefore a foundational value in art.
  • Do humans benefit? The benefit may be to the artist alone, which is perfectly fine but should be understood as an extremely narrow sort of aim, like a scientific discovery that extends the life of a single human. The tension between an artist’s desire to express himself purely and without calculations about reception and the fact that art must benefit humans or be pointless is irreducible and beneficial, itself a metaphor for the paradox of selfhood.
  • Art that is about art is as science about science: useful for practitioners but insufficiently universal in scope. Art that is about artists is as science about scientists: likely to be worthless where it cannot be generalized, and where it can it is hardly about individuals anyway.

An important note: art makes virtualized reality possible both for external sense experiences like seeing a lion or a landscape and internal, phenomenological experiences like emotional states or even qualia. The virtualization of meaningful human phenomena might involve nothing representational —music often does not— or taken from the world outside of us. A work of art which captures, provokes, or explores something like sorrow, hope, love, or fear might be highly abstract, impressionistic, unusual, just as our internal life is.

Artists are technologists

I’ve mentioned qualia twice, once implicitly noting that some do not believe they exist and once by noting that art captures them well. Qualia were first described by C.I. Lewis in 1929:

There are recognizable qualitative characters of the given, which may be repeated in different experiences, and are thus a sort of universals; I call these “qualia.” But although such qualia are universals, in the sense of being recognized from one to another experience, they must be distinguished from the properties of objects.

Another way of putting it: when you look at a red sign, the “redness” you see doesn’t exist anywhere. The sign is an almost entirely-empty latticework of vibrating particles. Photons bounce off of some of these and enter your eye at a wavelength, but that wavelength is a mathematical description: it has no color in it, and photons themselves are colorless. Your mind experiences “redness,” but you might also say that it “creates” or “invents” redness when prompted by certain light phenomena which themselves have nothing to do, now or ever, with “redness,” which doesn’t exist. Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel-prize winning quantum physicist, put it thus:

The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.

That one of the founders of modern physics didn’t believe a physical or physiological explanation for qualia would be forthcoming is arresting. But more to the point, while scientists and philosophers try to determine what “redness” or “sorrow” really is, as a quale, artists are virtualizing qualia and catalyzing them in audiencesIndeed, much of the personal quality that art has consists in its relationship to deep, individuated qualia we ourselves hardly comprehend.

For millennia art outstripped the sciences in its ability to understand and recreate qualia, virtualize reality, and provide ennobling, edifying, educational, and entertaining simulations for humans. Indeed, art pushed science, demanding better technologies which required deeper understanding in dozens of fields. The demands of art pushed architecture, and therefore engineering and chemistry and materials sciences; art required new resources for colors and sculptures, shaping societies economically; the musical arts were constrained awfully until technology turned music from vanishing performances into enduring, widely-distributed works.

All of which is to say: artists are natural technologists. Historically, they’ve pursued the newest and best techniques, materials, and forms. When the methodology for achieving perspective became clear, few resisted it on the basis of a calcified iconographic style considered to be “high art,” or if some did they’ve been suitably forgotten. And had new inks, better canvases, or some unimaginable invention given superior means to the impressionists to capture washes of light and mood —like, say, film— they’d have used whatever was available. The purpose of painting isn’t paint, after all; nor is the purpose of writing a book. (4)

The purpose is instead to virtualize phenomena for the benefit of humans. The best techniques for doing so do indeed change; the schools of thought that shape artists wax, wane, wear out; intellectual movements, critical and popular reaction, and technology are all part of the contingency in which we work. But the orientation of art should not be towards the ephemeral (except in exploring ephemerality itself, permanent and vexing) but towards deeper, universal, clarifying aims.

In elementary school, we were taught about Europe’s cathedrals. Centuries of fatality- and error-filled construction and engineering innovation on the edge of recklessness produced spaces intended to virtualize the experience of heavenly light, spiritual elevation, credence in the sacred. A peasant from the fields could enter one and immediately understand; he’d not know Suger’s theories or the tradeoffs involved in the buttresses, but the purpose and effect of the art were somehow not lost on him. The same would likely have been true had he seen Michelangelo’s David or been permitted to hear Mozart or Hildegard of Bingen. With exceptions, of course, art has aspired to universality.

The extraordinary present circumstance in which art is not expected to be intelligible, to have any “benefit” beyond the meaninglessly subjective “enjoyment” of the “consumer” is an aberration. That art is denied its progressive success at virtualizing greater and greater parts of reality, conveying ever-more phenomena with ever-greater fidelity to ever-more people, is the result of a philosophical disruption and a subsequent error. We found God dead; we asked what had god-like authority and reeled to realize that nothing can. But we’ve accepted that somehow, science exceeds merely moody paradigms. It works. It gives us control over the universe and ourselves, reduces contingency and accident, allows us to be what we think we should be.

Art is part of the same process, and can be evaluated similarly. In allowing us to virtualize and experiment with realities and phenomena, and, gradually, to live in those realities, it is part of the same epistemological and creative process as science. We are simply at an earlier stage, and just as someone might have surveyed the globe in 500 CE and concluded, “There is nothing objective about the so-called sciences; it appears that every culture and every society simply invents its own ideas and none is really any better than the rest,” so we now struggle to understand how aesthetics and morality might someday be understood teleologically, not as expressions of “taste” but as forms of knowledge-generation, experimentation, and even reality-building.

Perhaps we are transitioning from artists-as-depictors and artists-as-catalyzers (5) to artists-as-world-makersTo create something, you must first understand it; to create a world for humans to experience, you must first understand how humans experience the world. Once you can reliably replicate any sense-perception, you must think of how such sense-perceptions are experienced in the mind: as qualia. Then you must think of how to generalize or objectify qualia, or how to catalyze them. This is not a task for science alone, though whether it is not yet or not at all I cannot say. It will involve art, however, particularly in the form it takes when it wants to extend itself into life: design.

Design is art which cannot ignore the outcome it pursues, which uses every technology or tool it can conjure to succeed, and which accepts the judgement of audiences. In this way, one can understand why so much of the vitality of art now resides in the commercial space: there, the artists still care about audiences, still have aims apart from themselves, still seek resonance, utility, universality. My anxieties about art stem mostly from this concern: if purposive, deliberate, universal art becomes the province of commercial design, art’s values will gravitate towards market values. The hope: those values will evolve intelligently through self-correction. But it seems safer to me to have a cultural space which accords art precisely the same sort of respect we pay science so that the arts can pursue their ends purely —ends far deeper than markets, capitalism, any historicism, incidentally— just as science exists apart from technology and its commercialization. But I doubt whether such a space is possible so long as we insist that all art is subjective, no teleology is imaginable, and there is no such thing as progress. Such an insistence is, in my view, both materially incorrect and snobbish, arising more from nostalgia for older forms or aristocratic art-culture than any real analysis of the present. We live in a world in which more people read, listen to music, and experience works of art than ever before. This is both art’s triumph and a prelude to its expanding role. From its earliest efforts to virtualize reality through its portrayal and later attempts to produce specific experiences in audiences, art aspires to the creation of worlds. As it converges with technology —in video games, for example— these worlds will grow to support the range of experiences and meanings humans desire, as art always has.


  1. Much of the confusion about subjective and objective sorts of knowledge comes from this simple fact: that we cannot have authority in knowledge means that nothing can be “final”; nothing is beyond interrogation, nothing is exempt from revision and improvement. That does not mean that all is equivalent, comparable, meaningless, a matter of preference. There are “criteria for reality,” in Deutsch’s terms, and they’re perfectly adequate to the actual epistemological tasks at hand, particularly in the sciences, where academics haven’t managed to confuse everyone’s sense of purpose yet. 

  2. As it happens, using virtualizations of reality to control reality seems likely to play an important role in humanity’s future. 

  3. The invention of new therapeutic diagnoses for the insufficiently empathetic, and their subsequent ineffectual medication, is a likelier course of action for our society. 

  4. The mistaking of a temporary medium —and all media, even those that endure for thousands of years, are temporary— for the purpose of art itself is precisely the sort of confusion that happens when ends vanish and means must suffice. If you cannot believe that art has a purpose deeper than its forms, its forms seem really important. But if you think the purpose of art is to virtualize phenomena for the benefit of humans (or the glorification of God or Marx), it’s not hard to accept that we might read off of screens or never care about painting again. If art matters, the texts on screens will do for us what oral traditions did for the Greeks and tomes did for the Enlightenment. The chapter of visual art obliged by technological-limitation to ignore movement will come to an end, or, if it can still open us to experience, teach us, console us, will continue. 

  5. Perhaps the mayhem of the successive schools of non-representational art can be understood both in terms of internecine disorder during the revaluation of values and as the working-out of experimental methods and techniques for orthogonal approaches to virtualization. Experimental art can, of course, be vitally useful. 

July 28th, 2011
Our intellect assumes, instinctively, that the world is motionless: things are there and motion is added to them, as it were. We try to reconstruct motion starting from motionlessness, as when we produce the illusion of motion when we move from still to still on a reel of film. But in reality it is motion, not things, that is primary; things are not entities to which motion is attached but mental crystallizations of motion. It seems to follow from this that the world is essentially mental.

Leszek Kolakowski, Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? We know, from philosophy and physics and even rudimentary introspection, that the world as we perceive it is a mental construction, a collection of impressions and ideas so divorced from the structure of reality as to constitute a creation. The stones which seem solid and opaque are merely latticeworks of vibrating particles; when we touch something it is merely a question of fields colliding; there is no explanation even for the qualia of color, the way colors exist in our minds; we cannot, as Schrödinger memorably insisted, account for yellow. Time is a mystery.

So: in a literal sense, the world is an illusion, or more precisely a creation: we generate the sphere of our existence from certain forms of raw perceptual data and a great deal of inventive, synthetic, and largely mysterious mental activity, activity we might even consider artistic.

The question: is this important? Does it matter in the least? Since we cannot seem to escape this world but for moments of incommunicable ecstasy (in the original sense), is its psychological or conscious genesis more than epistemological trivia? Is it consequential that “the world is essentially mental”?

February 25th, 2010
Clouds and clocks. (Image from a beautiful photoset by April Cakes).
My friend Tragos, in response to another of countless essays on this or that “generation,” noted why he feels that these periodic commentaries on Xers, Yers, and Millennials fascinate us despite their utter meaninglessness. Whatever their wittiness, their sardonic and seemingly-knowing nods to cultural phenomena we love to be reminded of, they are statistically indefensible: sweeping, Thomas-Friedman-esque generalizations about tens or hundreds of millions of individuals whose ages alone are no more essential to their nature than their ethnicity, class, religiosity, aptitudes, experiences, place of origin, sex, or genetics.
As I asked Tragos: when we cannot even cleanly define the span of generations, especially when we complicate them by comparing, say, a 1980 baby in NYC to one in Anchorage, one rich, one poor, etc., how can we possibly consider it meaningful when some indolent author-journalist sallies forth with a few pointed remarks about media, technology, and other comparably superficial signifiers? Such remarks are as useful as comments at your neighborhood bar concerning “women” or “whites.”
And yet! There does seem to be something more than the egoistic pleasure of comparing and contrasting ourselves superficially with others -do I watch more or less TV, or do I only watch shows on the Internet?- to generational investigations, if not concretely then in literature. Nothing is more novelistic than the embodiment of a time; it is a critical cliche -true and dull- that the best novels seem to “capture the zeitgeist.”
To me, this seems a classic illustration of the utility of impressionism: art behaves unscientifically, performs operations on data sets that cannot be methodologically justified, and achieves a fidelity to reality that is as useful to comprehending a time, a place, a people, as any sociological survey. One cannot scientifically defend un-researched assertions about millions, but one reads a single novel and is acquainted, so far as one can be, with an era long past.
(If such articles on generations -“Are Millennials More Likely to Have Successful Marriages?”- were considered as impressionistic sketches and not journalism, I’d not consider them nearly so ridiculous).
What has this to do with clouds and clocks? It reminds me -as does much- of the problems of aggregation, of individuation, of how one accurately renders on a social scale a reality composed of individual actors. It is always a reduction to do so, always a kind of falsehood, yet it is necessary, too, and has its own sort of truth. That truths change with scale is unsettling, and reminds me of Karl Popper’s distinction between clouds and clocks, and of how physical indeterminacy can nevertheless yield predictable systems.
These remarks by Erwin Schrödinger are illustrative as well; you’re no doubt familiar with the process of diffusion, but it is notable that for individual molecules, there’s really no such thing:
Imagine a vessel filled with a fluid, say water, with a small amount of some coloured substance dissolved in it… If you leave this system alone a very slow process of ‘diffusion’ sets in, the [substance] spreading from…places of higher concentration towards the places of lower concentration, until it is equally distributed through the water.
The remarkable thing about this rather simple and apparently not particularly interesting process is that it is in no way due, as one might think, to any tendency or force driving the… molecules away from the crowded region to the less crowded one… Nothing of the sort happens… Every one of them behaves quite independently of all the others, which it very seldom meets. Every one of them, whether in a crowded region or in an empty one, suffers the same fate of being continually knocked about by the impacts of the water molecules and thereby gradually moving on in an unpredictable direction –sometimes towards the higher, sometimes towards the lower concentrations, sometimes obliquely.
That this random walk of the molecules, the same for all of them, should yet produce a regular flow towards the smaller concentration and ultimately make for uniformity of distribution, is at first sight perplexing –but only at first sight.
Diffusion -a process essential biology in particular- works because of the aggregated behavior of individual elements that themselves do not obey the pattern-rules of the aggregate. Like an individual who, freely and of his own agency makes unpredictable choices and reacts intellectually and emotionally to his world, a single molecule cannot be relied upon to exemplify the “mass” behavior of diffusion. Yet, in total, the system of molecules does, just as many millions of individuals do seem somehow to sum into a society describable, in principle and to a degree in fact, by an observer.
I will continue to insist that society is better described by a novelist than a scientist, for the time being, simply because I am an individual, a molecule, and it remains more interesting to me what Tragos does -even as he typifies and violates the rules of his “generation”- than whether we millions move this way or that in our random shuffling.

Clouds and clocks. (Image from a beautiful photoset by April Cakes).

My friend Tragos, in response to another of countless essays on this or that “generation,” noted why he feels that these periodic commentaries on Xers, Yers, and Millennials fascinate us despite their utter meaninglessness. Whatever their wittiness, their sardonic and seemingly-knowing nods to cultural phenomena we love to be reminded of, they are statistically indefensible: sweeping, Thomas-Friedman-esque generalizations about tens or hundreds of millions of individuals whose ages alone are no more essential to their nature than their ethnicity, class, religiosity, aptitudes, experiences, place of origin, sex, or genetics.

As I asked Tragos: when we cannot even cleanly define the span of generations, especially when we complicate them by comparing, say, a 1980 baby in NYC to one in Anchorage, one rich, one poor, etc., how can we possibly consider it meaningful when some indolent author-journalist sallies forth with a few pointed remarks about media, technology, and other comparably superficial signifiers? Such remarks are as useful as comments at your neighborhood bar concerning “women” or “whites.”

And yet! There does seem to be something more than the egoistic pleasure of comparing and contrasting ourselves superficially with others -do I watch more or less TV, or do I only watch shows on the Internet?- to generational investigations, if not concretely then in literature. Nothing is more novelistic than the embodiment of a time; it is a critical cliche -true and dull- that the best novels seem to “capture the zeitgeist.”

To me, this seems a classic illustration of the utility of impressionism: art behaves unscientifically, performs operations on data sets that cannot be methodologically justified, and achieves a fidelity to reality that is as useful to comprehending a time, a place, a people, as any sociological survey. One cannot scientifically defend un-researched assertions about millions, but one reads a single novel and is acquainted, so far as one can be, with an era long past.

(If such articles on generations -“Are Millennials More Likely to Have Successful Marriages?”- were considered as impressionistic sketches and not journalism, I’d not consider them nearly so ridiculous).

What has this to do with clouds and clocks? It reminds me -as does much- of the problems of aggregation, of individuation, of how one accurately renders on a social scale a reality composed of individual actors. It is always a reduction to do so, always a kind of falsehood, yet it is necessary, too, and has its own sort of truth. That truths change with scale is unsettling, and reminds me of Karl Popper’s distinction between clouds and clocks, and of how physical indeterminacy can nevertheless yield predictable systems.

These remarks by Erwin Schrödinger are illustrative as well; you’re no doubt familiar with the process of diffusion, but it is notable that for individual molecules, there’s really no such thing:

Imagine a vessel filled with a fluid, say water, with a small amount of some coloured substance dissolved in it… If you leave this system alone a very slow process of ‘diffusion’ sets in, the [substance] spreading from…places of higher concentration towards the places of lower concentration, until it is equally distributed through the water.
The remarkable thing about this rather simple and apparently not particularly interesting process is that it is in no way due, as one might think, to any tendency or force driving the… molecules away from the crowded region to the less crowded one… Nothing of the sort happens… Every one of them behaves quite independently of all the others, which it very seldom meets. Every one of them, whether in a crowded region or in an empty one, suffers the same fate of being continually knocked about by the impacts of the water molecules and thereby gradually moving on in an unpredictable direction –sometimes towards the higher, sometimes towards the lower concentrations, sometimes obliquely.
That this random walk of the molecules, the same for all of them, should yet produce a regular flow towards the smaller concentration and ultimately make for uniformity of distribution, is at first sight perplexing –but only at first sight.

Diffusion -a process essential biology in particular- works because of the aggregated behavior of individual elements that themselves do not obey the pattern-rules of the aggregate. Like an individual who, freely and of his own agency makes unpredictable choices and reacts intellectually and emotionally to his world, a single molecule cannot be relied upon to exemplify the “mass” behavior of diffusion. Yet, in total, the system of molecules does, just as many millions of individuals do seem somehow to sum into a society describable, in principle and to a degree in fact, by an observer.

I will continue to insist that society is better described by a novelist than a scientist, for the time being, simply because I am an individual, a molecule, and it remains more interesting to me what Tragos does -even as he typifies and violates the rules of his “generation”- than whether we millions move this way or that in our random shuffling.

November 29th, 2009
Reblogged from Enthusiasms
September 24th, 2009
And you will, on close introspection, find that what you really mean by ‘I’ is that ground-stuff upon which [experiential data] are collected. You may come to a distant country, lose sight of all your friends, may all but forget them; you acquire new friends, you share life with them as intensely as you ever did with your old ones. Less and less important will become the fact that, while living your new life, you still recollect the old one. ‘The youth that was I’, you may come to speak of him in the third person, and indeed the protagonist of the novel you are reading is probably nearer to your heart, certainly more intensely alive and better known to you. Yet there has been no intermediate break, no death. And even if a skilled hypnotist succeeded in blotting out entirely all your earlier reminiscences, you would not find that he had killed you. In no case is there a loss of personal existence to deplore. Nor will there ever be.

Erwin Schrödinger, in the absolutely wonderful What is Life? (which you can read online). He argues that the only logical conclusion one can draw from the statistical facticity of determinism, given our structure, size, and subjugation to the laws of science, is that consciousness is not individual but universal and -so to speak- at the base of all things; in the words of the Upanishads, which he cites, Atman is Brahman.

The book is fascinating, and the co-discoverer of DNA’s nature claims it anticipated and sped his research: significant praise for a work by a physicist. Beyond its discussion of the basis of life in a physical sense, it contains Schrödinger’s thoughts on mind, a phenomenon of special complexity and meaning that is taken for granted despite being scarcely understood. In “The Mystic Vision,” he wrote:

"Knowledge, feeling, and choice are essentially eternal and unchangeable and numerically one in all men, nay in all sensitive beings. But not in this sense — that you are a part, a piece, of an eternal, infinite being, an aspect or modification of it… For we should then have the same baffling question: which part, which aspect are you? what, objectively, differentiates it from the others? No, but, inconceiveable as it seems to ordinary reason, you — and all other conscious beings as such — are all in all. Hence, this life of yours… is, in a certain sense, the whole… This, as we know, is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula… Tat tvam asi — this is you. Or, again, in such words as ‘I am in the east and in the west, I am below and above, I am this whole world.’ Thus you can throw yourself flat on the ground, stretched out upon Mother Earth, with certain conviction that you are one with her and she with you … For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.”

I find the insistence of a Nobel laureate such as Schrödinger that these ideas are to be taken as literal descriptions of the world, not as metaphors in any sense, to be extraordinarily interesting.

July 27th, 2009
It would take as many human bodies to make up the sun as there are atoms in each of us. The geometric mean of the mass of a proton and the mass of the sun is 50 kilograms, within a factor of two of the mass of each person here.

Sir Martin Rees in a TED lecture. He suggests that humans have evolved to this scale, an almost beautiful mean between stars and atomic particles, because we must be large enough to permit massive complexity in structure while small enough to experience minimal gravitational effects.

This idea reminds me of Schrödinger’s amazing explanation of why the fundamental components of human life -particularly DNA- are sized as they are.

It always makes me feel rather happy to think that everything had to be just so for our world, as we know it, to occur. Rees calls this quality of the universe its biophilia and describes it more here.

March 31st, 2009

Does Truth Exist Apart from Human Language?

"A mathematical truth is timeless; it does not come into being when we discover it. Yet its discovery is a very real event…"

With this Schrödinger notes a Platonic problem: mathematical truths exist apart from us. That is, for example, before humans existed it was still true that "the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides," as the Pythagorean theorem states.

This would remain “true” even if the Earth were smashed into rocky mist by an asteroid or humanity annihilated by its own weaponry. It would be true were life never formed: triangular shapes would conform to it. Its truth as a descriptive theorem is not dependent on our minds, we would say.

Yet in the famous words of Richard Rorty:

"Truth cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false.”

Truth cannot exist without sentences, as truth is a word. It has certain unusual qualities (transitive qualities, symmetry, etc.), but that we call those elements of its syntax ‘mathematical’ or ‘logical’ doesn’t mean they’re not of human (and linguistic) origin. So it would seem that mathematical knowledge is merely a sort of description, right? It is a highly reliable and repeatable description that abstracts forms of the natural world to make them more universal, better for operations, but it remains descriptive. “Two” describes things; “parallel” describes things; “true” describes things.

But Will mentioned circles -perfect circles- and their relationship to the universe. Such circles do not exist: they cannot be said to be descriptive, then; yet laws involving circles are everywhere in effect in our universe. The explanation of such laws by mathematicians has the quality of discovery: we found them! Yet it seems rather that we’ve created them! Yet they exist without us, at least inasmuch as the universe operates according to the principles they establish!

Is this a contradiction? Can you resolve it (in 140 characters)? Are mathematical laws human descriptions or qualities of the universe?

March 29th, 2009
…it follows that consciousness and discord with one’s own self are inseparably linked up, even that they must, as it were, be proportional to each other. This sounds a paradox, but the wisest of all times and peoples have testified to confirm it. Men and women for whom this world was lit in an unusually bright light of awareness, and who by life and word have, more than others, formed and transformed that work of art which we call humanity, testify by speech and writing or even by their very lives that more than others have they been torn by the pangs of inner discord.

Erwin Schrödinger, Mind and Matter. Schrödinger, a Nobel laureate physicist of renown, concludes this from the fact that adaptive evolutionary consciousness functions thusly: “consciousness is associated with the learning of the living substance; its knowing how is unconscious.”

That is to say: in the discord of novel but periodically repeating situations the organism adapts, and it is in this adaptation that life reflects its environment with increasing complexity until what we call consciousness emerges from the interplay.

As such, in instances of success we achieve stagnation, and “places of stagnancy slip from consciousness.” This relationship between discord, growth, vitality, awareness, change, suffering and ease, stagnation, somnambulance, comfort, existential arrest is evident in our lives, but I’d not previously thought of its evolutionary grounding.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I’ve written about Schrödinger before; he is a striking thinker across many fields, and I’m sure I’ll have cause to further quote him.

January 11th, 2009
I am very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world around me is deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight; it knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously.
January 9th, 2009
A Rye Field (1878), by Ivan Shishkin.
Looking at Distorte’s post of J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway, I was reminded of an elemental part of painting: it does not recreate reality, but reality as we see it. It is for this reason that Impressionism was both controversial and triumphant: in abandoning one form of isomorphism (the geometric and linear fidelity that characterized more realistic painting), it pursued a facet of the visual that had less to do with reality and more to do with how humans see.
We tend to think that we see reality, but as Schrödinger emphasizes in Mind and Matter, what we see has much more to do with our optical cognition than with any qualities of the physical world. To take a common example, the resolution of our vision is such that we perceive objects as solid although they are almost entirely space, empty vacuum around very tiny elementary particles.
In other words: the world is almost entirely void, but you perceive solids and their surfaces in your cogitated (in some sense imagined) sensory way. Your perception is creative; it generates a visual dimension where reality offers only waves of energy, empty lattices of atoms, and the like. Schrödinger says that your "sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves."
Analogies to painting are not hard to conjure; as popular a scene as that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which the character Cameron seems lost in the composition of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, presents us with an example of the mysteries of scale and emergence. What is remarkable isn’t that Seurat’s pointillism achieves meaning in the aggregation of those tiny points of color, but that our entire visual world works that way.
(The scene works because such mysteries fascinate us all. How do the points of color come together to make a sky and the people beneath it? How do the moments of our days come together to make our lives? How do the cells of our bodies come together to make us? And how do the tiny and unreliable particles beneath it all combine into this, this world of wonder and meaning?).
Even such contemporary work as later Chuck Close (whom we might term “post-pointillist”) possess this fascination with creating something on our scale -human faces- from something much smaller: the almost cellular masses of color he arranges variously.
The Shishkin above seems at that scale to be a photograph, which is no truer to the fundamental (non-human, unperceived) reality than is a painting. Thus it too moves along this continuum of scales and styles, mass and motion, structure and sensation.
(See here for a larger version).

A Rye Field (1878), by Ivan Shishkin.

Looking at Distorte’s post of J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway, I was reminded of an elemental part of painting: it does not recreate reality, but reality as we see it. It is for this reason that Impressionism was both controversial and triumphant: in abandoning one form of isomorphism (the geometric and linear fidelity that characterized more realistic painting), it pursued a facet of the visual that had less to do with reality and more to do with how humans see.

We tend to think that we see reality, but as Schrödinger emphasizes in Mind and Matter, what we see has much more to do with our optical cognition than with any qualities of the physical world. To take a common example, the resolution of our vision is such that we perceive objects as solid although they are almost entirely space, empty vacuum around very tiny elementary particles.

In other words: the world is almost entirely void, but you perceive solids and their surfaces in your cogitated (in some sense imagined) sensory way. Your perception is creative; it generates a visual dimension where reality offers only waves of energy, empty lattices of atoms, and the like. Schrödinger says that your "sensation of color cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves."

Analogies to painting are not hard to conjure; as popular a scene as that in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which the character Cameron seems lost in the composition of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, presents us with an example of the mysteries of scale and emergence. What is remarkable isn’t that Seurat’s pointillism achieves meaning in the aggregation of those tiny points of color, but that our entire visual world works that way.

(The scene works because such mysteries fascinate us all. How do the points of color come together to make a sky and the people beneath it? How do the moments of our days come together to make our lives? How do the cells of our bodies come together to make us? And how do the tiny and unreliable particles beneath it all combine into this, this world of wonder and meaning?).

Even such contemporary work as later Chuck Close (whom we might term “post-pointillist”) possess this fascination with creating something on our scale -human faces- from something much smaller: the almost cellular masses of color he arranges variously.

The Shishkin above seems at that scale to be a photograph, which is no truer to the fundamental (non-human, unperceived) reality than is a painting. Thus it too moves along this continuum of scales and styles, mass and motion, structure and sensation.

(See here for a larger version).

December 17th, 2008

The Ragbag

I was writing a short post to direct interested readers to The Ragbag, an excellent, excellent tumblelog which has recently discussed:

  • apophenia, the perception of “patterns or connections in random or meaningless data” (which is a good way of discussing some elements of schizophrenia, paranoia, and manic artistry);
  • the Shaw Phonetic Alphabet, a set of characters created from a commission, possibly willed in jest, by George Bernard Shaw;
  • a fascinating true-or-false proposition: “Evolution is a brute force hack,” an interesting phrasing which connects to a theme explored in the book What is Life?, by Erwin Schrödinger, which I discussed previously and to which I will return.

However, he just posted what is one of the most-apropos Tumblr posts of all time, one which combines sexuality and literature in a way that seems destined to be reblogged into infinity:

Ten Writers Who Masturbated

Even more than his cooler-than-usual musings on typography, this synthesis of the main interests of the Internet literati concludes with the following vignette about James Joyce:

One day, when a fan of his writing said to him, “let me shake the hand that wrote Ulysses,” he replied, “No—it’s done lots of other things, too!”

He’d previously mentioned a letter which Joyce wrote to his wife which his literary executors ought to be ashamed for making public, but which is extraordinary in its lustfulness. I felt prurient just scanning it, and remorseful for having invaded Joyce’s posthumous privacy, but it was interesting.

Anyway: check the Ragbag out.

Reblogged from the ragbag
December 1st, 2008
Suppose that you could mark the molecules in a glass of water; then pour the contents of the glass into the ocean and stir the latter thoroughly so as to distribute the marked molecules uniformly throughout the seven seas; if then you took a glass of water anywhere out of the ocean, you would find in it about a hundred of your marked molecules.

Erwin Schrödinger, quoting an example used by Lord Kelvin, to demonstrate how small atoms are (that is: how many of them there are in everything, like glasses of water).

As he notes, however, it’s not so much that atoms are small as it is that we are large, very large. Schrödinger begins What Is Life?, which was sent to me by my dad, by pondering the relative size of organic life to its atomic constituents. Why are cells, organisms, humans so much larger than atoms and atomic events? Why are all fundamental physical processes so far beneath our sensory perception?

The question is not facile, although the immediate instinct is to say, as we do when we don’t understand something, “Because it is!” But Schrödinger arrives at an arresting conclusion: life is vastly larger in scale because at the atomic scale, individual atomic events are not reliably predictable. Due to the bizarre and irregular nature of individual molecular and atomic events, few repeatable phenomena are available for systems to organize their processes with; that is to say, you cannot build reliable, repeatable processes from atoms or molecules because they are too random. Life must use aggregates of millions of atoms or molecules.

In aggregates, atoms behave with statistical regularity despite individual irregularity. Schrödinger illustrates this with examples like diffusion and Brownian motion; in both cases, individual atoms behave with total and unpredictable irregularity, but in massive groups they behave with complete predictability. Just as one could not build a skyscraper on unpredictably shifting earth, so organic life must rely on the aggregation of atoms and molecules for the processes it uses to function (like diffusion, for example). Hence our sense organs all being far too massive to perceive all the fundamental phenomena of the universe’s compositional elements.

Abusing this remarkable observation, I thought it a nicely poetic metaphor for an epistemological phenomenon that has long irked me: the manner in which the more closely examined something is, the more fleeting its precise details are; there is a Heisenberg-like quality to reality, and I remember when as a child I was attempting to learn about JFK’s assassination how baffled I was that so many thousands of investigators, historians, academics, and law-enforcement personnel, working for decades, could not arrive at an indisputable conclusion. As I’ve grown older, I’ve seen that this is true of virtually every event, even those recorded on video or photographic media and witnessed by millions.

While this has nothing whatever to do with Schrödinger and Heisenberg, it struck me then that reality resists knowing: the more closely you examine it, the more space in between facts you see, the more chaotic the motion you seek to arrest, the more diffuse the facts you want to connect. Crystalline structures of conclusive meaning merely mask enormous spaces in their own lattices, spaces where the random trails of the unpredictable remain visible.

(Note: I’m not even discussing the inescapable fact that at the quantum level, and thus probably beyond it, mere observation demonstrably affects reality in ways that are scarcely believable).

November 14th, 2008
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life…. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

William Faulkner, from the thoroughly excellent tumblelog Unburying the Lead. Tangentially, Wikipedia offers some explanations for the WWII-era phrase "Kilroy was here," a meme before Richard Dawkins had developed* the term, one which spread across media before the Internet (mainly as graffiti on walls and written in fiction).

*I say Dawkins developed, rather than invented, the term “meme” as my dad recently discovered the work of Richard Semon (1859-1918), who coined the term “mneme” to describe evolutionary phenomena in a manner remarkably similar to Dawkins’ work. That my father came across his ideas in a biography of Erwin Schrödinger is notable, as it demonstrates that Semon is not particularly obscure. Of course, few great ideas are sui generis, and Dawkins’ application of the idea to culture -and to phenomena such as global graffiti patterns- was novel and extremely useful.

I doubt whether Dawkins, Faulkner, Schrödinger or any thinker or artist really conceives of his or her work as creative immortality; you may scribble what you like on the wall, but if your only interest is in etching a sign of your existence you might save the astounding labor of an Absalom, Absalom! and just write “Damn.” But I very much like the first part, especially this: art, viewed by a stranger from another time, “moves again since it is life.”

The more explanation a work of art requires before it “moves again” for the stranger who views it, the less artful it is; it should just happen, like life.

Reblogged from Oversets
Loading tweets...

Twitter

Photography

Hello! My name is Mills Baker. I write about art, culture, love, philosophy, memory, history, and more. Here are some relatively better posts. This site has been featured on Tumblr Tuesday and is listed in the Spotlight, but it pines for its youth as a coloring book. (Header lettering by the amazing Chirp).