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Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love? The bower created by a male bowerbird.

David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms. In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?

Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.

One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.

In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?

From the book:

The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created—an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…

[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing—beautiful.

Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”

He also writes this memorable line:

I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.

This book is full of many treasures. I’ll be drawing from it in future posts.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

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Photo credit: Joe Bonomo from No Such Thing as Was

For years I have been a fan of The Edge, John Brockman‘s website/movement/salon writ large/community. Feel like you need a lift, something to perk up your day? You can stop in and wander that site and invariably leave with ideas that are new, provocative and thought-altering. It is cross disciplined, highly interconnected and holistic thinking at its best.

Every year a question is posed that then gets answered by a wide variety of thinkers. Earlier this year Brockman published a book of the answers to the question for 2011: “What scientific concepts would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” In this question a “scientific concept” can come from any discipline—philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence—as long as it is a rigorous tool that has broad applications and can be summed up succinctly.

This Will Make You Smarter is full of gems. I’ll share a few favorites here and going forward. An early entry to start it off:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education: no matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.

Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know that they are constructing models rather than revealing reality…

The rest of us, by contrast, often engage in a kind of tacit chronological exceptionalism. Unlike all those suckers who fell for the flat earth or the geocentric universe or cold fusion or the cosmological constant, we ourselves have the great good luck to be alive during the very apex of accurate human thought. The literary critic Harry Levin put this nicely: “The habit of equating one’s age with the apogee of civilization, one’s town with the hub of the universe, one’s horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread.” At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

Kathryn Shulz, from her Edge answer, “The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science”

Kathryn Shulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error


Heron on the beach at Small Point, Maine

This is a postscript to yesterday’s post with more on the theme of the usefulness of downtime…

Sam McNerney has posted a piece on Big Think called Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much in which he highlights the results of several recent studies on focus and creativity.

We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse. Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process.

The research McNerney describes helps explain why “prodigiously creative” people have a proclivity for generating solutions to complex problems spontaneously. As one researcher puts it, “This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”

McNerney’s conclusion:

Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack…let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone—there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”


Josef Albers, the Color Czar (for some folks anyway)

“In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”
–Josef Albers

“If you don’t do it my way, I suggest you commit suicide.”
–Josef Albers

How humans perceive color is not dissimilar to how humans raise a child: Even though we have been at it for thousands of years, we still don’t agree on how to do it.

Josef Albers is the artist most often associated with color theory as well as color dogmatism. The battle between the Albers method and other color systems continues in art pedagogy, a discussion I typically watch from the sidelines since I am a dogged nonreligionist on this topic. For me it has and always will be an element of art that is subjective, furtive and unexpected.

But even though I do not subscribe to any one system of thought on color, I love to read about it. I probably have over 20 books in my library on the topic. And recently I found a website that approaches color theory in a refreshingly non-doctrinaire but well informed manner. Color System is based on the research of two professors, Narciso Silvestrini and Ernst Peter Fischer, and brings together illustrated overviews of 59 different color order systems from both art and science. The list starts with theorists from antiquity (Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato) cuts through to Goethe and current approaches. The site also includes a few overviews of the significance of color in a number of cultural systems—astrological, Islamic, Liturgical, Symbolism and Heraldry among others. For anyone interested in color, this is fascinating stuff.

Extra bonus: If you enjoy playing with color and color perception, here’s a great site for you: Color is Relative


Goethe’s color wheel


Only one tree in my Brookline neighborhood is hosting a playful colony of shell-like parasols

My last post elicited several provocative comments and instigated a number of compelling conversations over the last few days. As a result I have continued to sit with several of ideas presented in The Tree, by John Fowles. It is winter in the Northeast after all, a season that inclines us to the warm fire, big armchair contemplation of our place in nature. And as the face of nature moves into its most extreme expression for us in this part of the planet, we meet it with preparation, protection and respect.

Here are a few more memorable paragraphs from the book. The selection below is actually from the introduction by the environmentalist writer Barry Lopez:

The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approach of science and “the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.” Science pounces on chaos—on “unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable” nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective…

Fowles sets down what he believes is the most dangerous of all our contemporary forms of alienation—“our growing emotional and intellectual detachment from nature.” He suggests the remedy for this lies with recognizing the debit side of the scientific revolution, understanding especially the change it has effected in our modes of perceiving and experiencing the world as individuals.

“Science is centrally, almost metaphysically, obsessed by general truths…but all nature, like all humanity, is made of minor exceptions, of entities that some way, however scientifically disregardable, do not confirm to the general rule. A belief in this kind of exception is as central to art as a belief in the utility of generalization is to science.”

Lopez points to Fowles’ use of paradox to illuminate and explore. Paradox it seems is elemental to a discussion of these issues.

The key to this paradox is the distinction Fowles makes between art and science. There is not the space here to elucidate, which is perhaps the coward’s way out on this, but some paradoxes are forever unresolvable and therefore, like koans, provoking and valuable. The best books about nature, like this one, drive you back out there, to the inchoate, the chaotic, the unresolvable.

Something does happen in the body when you are truly out of digital reach. No cellphones, computers or televisions. And in that digital silence, life takes on a different texture. In the splendid isolation of the Maine coast, worries and concerns begin unpacking and gently floating off your bow. In the words of Yeats, peace does come dropping slow.

That setting is also the perfect backdrop to what turned out to be our ongoing discussion of decision fatigue. Prompted by John Tierney‘s New York Times Magazine excerpt from his soon-to-be-released book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, written with Roy F. Baumeister, this was our conversational theme all week.

Tierney explores new research in the personal cost of making decisions, little ones as well as big ones. The results are sobering for all of us who live in the distraction-rich, small decision-ridden world of 21st century America. These findings scientize what many of us have observed in ourselves and others.

From Tierney’s piece:

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. It’s not like getting winded or hitting the wall during a marathon. Ego depletion manifests itself not as one feeling but rather as a propensity to experience everything more intensely. When the brain’s regulatory powers weaken, frustrations seem more irritating than usual. Impulses to eat, drink, spend and say stupid things feel more powerful (and alcohol causes self-control to decline further). Like those dogs in the experiment, ego-depleted humans become more likely to get into needless fights over turf. In making decisions, they take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs. Like the depleted parole judges, they become inclined to take the safer, easier option even when that option hurts someone else.

There are many behaviors that we have adopted that are decision energy zappers. Spending time online. Weddings. (Tierney describes them as Decision Hell Week.) Shopping. The option-rich abundance that we have come to view as a sign of advanced culture. (What? That only comes in 8 colors?)

He also shares a valuable insight into the implications of these findings on the perpetual poor: “This sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”

And what does the body need most to replenish itself from decision fatigue? Glucose. Those candy bars at the check out counter are there for a reason. Your resistance is low after shopping, and you need a glucose hit to continue on.

In his concluding comments, Tierney offers up a profile of the optimal decision maker:

“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

“Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” Baumeister points out. That’s why the truly wise don’t restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don’t make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach. “The best decision makers,” Baumeister says, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”

What are the implications of these findings on art making? Well, let’s start with how many decisions are involved in a single painting. The number exceeds what most non-artists would expect. (I am reminded of the line from a 90 year old Agnes Martin, delivered to a visiting reporter after her morning session in the studio: “Painting is hard work!”) Applying these findings to the life of an artist or maker, certain good work habits emerge as invaluable—a regular schedule for working, staying conscious of when the body and willpower are depleted, the importance of taking breaks. And perhaps I can now view my need for a bite of chocolate around 3pm as a righteous cry from the body for glucose reinforcements.

Great article. Available to New York Times subscribers here.


“Golamandi”, from a new painting series

As athletes tend to their bodies, artists tend to their perceptions. But as our knowledge of peak athletic performance continues to improve, the domain of consciousness and perception is still full of mystery.

Consider this from Nicholas Humphrey in the New York Times Book Review:

A few days before a review of my latest book appeared in these pages, I wrote to my editor, saying I had seen an advance copy and how much I liked the color illustration of the yellow moon. He replied that I must be mistaken, since the Book Review doesn’t use color. The next weekend he wrote to say he couldn’t think what had come over him – he reads the Book Review every week, and had somehow not noticed the color. Odd. And yet these lapses can happen to the best of us. Ask yourself what the Roman number four on the face of the church clock looks like. Most people will answer it looks like IV, but almost certainly the truth is it looks like IIII.

Why are we so bad at knowing – in this case remembering – what passes through our own minds? The philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, in “Perplexities of Consciousness,” contends that our minds, rather than being open-access, are largely hidden territory. Despite what we believe about our powers of introspection, the reality is that we know awfully little about what our conscious experience amounts to. Even when reporting current experience, we make divergent, confused and even contradictory claims about what it’s like to be on the inside.

Humphrey draws upon the historical distinctions made between sensation and perception. Sensation is how we represent sensory stimuli at the surface of our bodies, and perception is how we represent the outside world in consciousness. Sensation is “raw and immediate”, perception more “categorical and slow.”

While sensation and perception have been confounded over the history of philosophical thought, Humphrey offers an extraordinary example of how we don’t neceesarily need sensation to perceive:

There is a clinical syndrome known as “blindsight,” resulting from brain damage, where the subject – to his own astonishment – finds he can “see” the properties of things he’s looking at, even though all visual sensation has been lost. He may indeed be able to guess what color an object is, without, as it were, seeing the color in color.

This concept is provocative. While this has been tested in brains that have been damaged, it does suggest that it might also be a quality of certain non-damaged brains as well. Humphrey commented earlier on how research has determined that some humans have “three times as much brain cortex assigned to receiving information from the eyes as others do.” Larger visual storage facilities? I like that idea. The concept of being able to “see” without the use of the eyes? Also appealing.


R. Buckminster Fuller

Content-rich theater is hard to do. Tom Stoppard is probably our most exemplary contemporary playwright of that genre. In so many of his plays, ideas and intellectual constructs take on theatrical forms, functioning almost as characters in the story. The Stoppard experience is deeply layered and yet neither didactic nor instructional. Which is why you (OK, I should say me) can watch the Coast of Utopia trilogy in marathon mode (7 hours) and still be longing to return the next day and do it all over again.

A. R. T.’s current offering at the Loeb Theater is a content-rich theatrical venture as well and one that I would recommend to anyone in the Boston area who has been able to dig their car out of the snowdrifts or is lucky enough to live within the reach of the T. R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, the long overdue homage to an extraordinary thinker, is performed as a one man play. Thomas Derrah is an uncanny channel for the quirky mannerisms and squaresville attire that seduces you into the playful, provocative and profound world of Bucky Fullerama. He was a man who spent a lifetime seeing things upsidedown and insideout, of bucking (he was well named!) against established norms—including his dismissal from Harvard not once but twice—and unpacking and debunking everyday assumptions. His world view, startling and mind-stretching even back in the 60s when startling and mind-stretching were the norm, feels prescient and timely given our current time and troubles. The production is chock full of mind teasers and provocations, delivered through words and a few well placed and expertly executed visual aids. But like Stoppard’s plays, D. W. Jacob’s production does not feel didactic or intellectually detached, and Derrah holds the sold out audience rapt.

I heard Bucky speak twice when I was a teenager. I was so taken by what I heard that I read everything he wrote and carried his ideas around for the rest of my life. Some viewed him as just plain off the grid, one of those types I affectionately refer to as “scientists gone galactic.” He was cut out of a different piece of cosmic cloth from his bureaucratic, gatekeeper cohorts, no question. But the course of time has taken us closer to his viewpoint than most of his detractors back in the 50s and 60s would have ever imagined possible.

And in keeping with a theme that has been running through my posts here over the last few months, Bucky’s life is another example of lastingness, of someone who was at his best in the second half of his life. His story is full of early failures. At one point in his 30s. he had been thwarted so profoundly that he decided to stop speaking altogether. He wanted every word he uttered to be authentic, defensible, carefully honed. So for two years he said very little. Slowly he reshaped and reclaimed a voice for himself. And once he did find his pitch perfect tuning, he couldn’t be stopped. Both of the Bucky lectures I attended went on for four hours without stopping. He was in his 70s at that time, but the energy he gave off was electric and irresistible.

Recently I asked my college-aged friends if they knew who he was, and almost all of them said no. It is high time to bring Bucky back for another age and another generation.


Winter light in Amory Park, Brookline MA

James Elkins is a tireless advocate for seeing—not just looking, but seeing. A professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, Elkins writes books about art that anyone, artist or otherwise, will find compelling. His books (there are nearly 20) range from How to Use Your Eyes, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings, to Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook For Art Students.

This fall Elkins has done four posts on Huffington Post addressing a variety of art related topics like How to Look at Mondrian, How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?, Are Artists Bored by Their Work? and Looking at the Sky. Ice Halos: Divine Signals Or The Ultimate Art Installation?

There is much to be said in response to each of these postings. But given the recent snow storm that passed through Boston, this last topic is of particularly interest. After reading his article I feel as if I have been given a whole new set of tools with which to look at the winter light and sky.

Sampling:

Why choose ice halos? Why not start with landscapes, faces, or bodies–things that are more common in art? Because ice halos are a spectacular example of our blindness…ice halos are the exotic winter cousins of rainbows: both are caused by water suspended in clouds, but ice halos appear when the water has frozen into tiny crystals.

The halo [pictured] is called the twenty-two degree halo. (It should have a more spectacular name, but that’s science for you.) It appears mostly in the wintertime, when it is very cold and the air is dry…The twenty-two degree ice halo is very large; it is a different creature from the aureoles and brownish-blue coronas that sometimes form just around the sun or moon. Twenty-two degrees is double the spread of your hand at arm’s length, so the halo is a little overwhelming, as if it were somehow very close to you.


Twenty-two degree halo (Photo: James Elkins)

Elkins goes on to elucidate a variety of light phenomena that we have to train our eyes to see such as twenty-two degree parhelia, or “sun dogs,” and sun pillars. In researching this phenomenon Elkins read up on the scientific explanations. But his conclusions are similar to ones I have come to as well:

A number of physicists have worked on understanding ice halos, and in 1980 Robert Greenler wrote a book that explains virtually all of them…But in the end, it is a little sad to see nature explained so efficiently, so ruthlessly. My favorite parts of Greenler’s book are the moments when he admits defeat. I don’t mind the science: it’s interesting, but it has very little to do with the experience of looking. Sometimes I read about the latest observations and research, and other times I am more interested in what Keats called negative capability: I suspend my desire to understand all these things in terms of hexagons, reflection, and refraction. I no longer believe that my fascination is answered by diagrams of ice crystals.


Types of ice halos–a sky full! (Image: James Elkins)

No, diagrams don’t do it. Not in the least.

One of my favorite spots on the web is the annual World Question* presented by The Edge. Each year a provocative question is posed, then answers flow in from every profession and point of view. It is a fascinating cross section of thinking, perspectives and insights.

The question being asked for 2011 is:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

The answers posted are rich, varied and unexpected. And there is very little overlap. If you are compelled by ideas, reading through them all will be a terrific adventure. Here are a few excerpts that stood out for me:

***
Linda Stone, former executive at Apple and Microsoft:

Suspending Disbelief

Projective thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono to describe
generative rather than reactive thinking…

Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing
case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of
intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is
expansive, “open-ended” and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the
context, concepts, and the objectives…

When we cling rigidly to our constructs…we can be blinded to what’s right in front of us.

***
Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants:

The Virtues of Negative Results

We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That’s a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced.

***
Alison Gopnik, author of Philosophical Baby:

The Rational Unconscious

One of the greatest scientific insights of the twentieth century was that most psychological processes are not conscious. But the “unconscious” that made it into the popular imagination was Freud’s irrational unconscious — the unconscious as a roiling, passionate id, barely held in check by conscious reason and reflection. This picture is still widespread even though Freud has been largely discredited scientifically.

The “unconscious” that has actually led to the greatest scientific and technological advances might be called Turing’s rational unconscious…The greatest advantage of understanding the rational unconscious would be to demonstrate that rational discovery isn’t a specialized abstruse privilege of the few we call “scientists”, but is instead the evolutionary birthright of us all. Really tapping into our inner vision and inner child might not make us happier or more well-adjusted, but it might make us appreciate just how smart we really are.

***
Richard Foreman, playwright:

Negative Capability Is A Profound Therapy

Mistakes, errors, false starts — accept them all. The basis of creativity.

My reference point (as a playwright, not a scientist) was Keat’s notion of negative capability (from his letters). Being able to exist with lucidity and calm amidst uncertainty, mystery and doubt, without “irritable (and always premature) reaching out” after fact and reason.

This toolkit notion of negative capability is a profound therapy for all manner of ills — intellectual, psychological, spiritual and political. I reflect it (amplify it) with Emerson’s notion that “Art (any intellectual activity?) is (best thought of as but) the path of the creator to his work.”

***
Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist:

The Lure Of A Good Story

Various concepts come to mind for inclusion in that cognitive toolkit. “Emergence,” or related to that, “the failure of reductionism” — mistrust the idea that if you want to understand a complex phenomenon, the only tool of science to use is to break it into its component parts, study them individually in isolation, and then glue the itty-bitty little pieces back together. This often doesn’t work and, increasingly, it seems like it doesn’t work for the most interesting and important phenomena out there.

***
Christine Finn, archaeologist

Absence and Evidence

I first heard the words “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” as a first-year archaeology undergraduate. I now know it was part of Carl Sagan’s retort against evidence from ignorance, but at the time the non-ascribed quote was part of the intellectual toolkit offered by my professor to help us make sense of the process of excavation…Recognising the evidence of absence is not about forcing a shape on the intangible, but acknowledging a potency in the not-thereness.

***
John McWhorter, author of That Being Said

Path Dependence

In an ideal world all people would spontaneously understand that what political scientists call path dependence explains much more of how the world works than is apparent. Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives.

The paradigm example is the seemingly illogical arrangement of letters on typewriter keyboards…Most of life looks path dependent to me. If I could create a national educational curriculum from scratch, I would include the concept as one taught to young people as early as possible.

***
Scott D. Sampson, author of Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life:

Interbeing

Humanity’s cognitive toolkit would greatly benefit from adoption of “interbeing,” a concept that comes from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In his words:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in [a] sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either . . . “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have a paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are. . . . “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.”

Depending on your perspective, the above passage may sound like profound wisdom or New Age mumbo-jumbo. I would like to propose that interbeing is a robust scientific fact — at least insomuch as such things exist — and, further, that this concept is exceptionally critical and timely.

***
Marco Iacoboni, author of Mirroring People

Entanglement

Entanglement is “spooky action at a distance”, as Einstein liked to say (he actually did not like it at all, but at some point he had to admit that it exists.) In quantum physics, two particles are entangled when a change in one particle is immediately associated with a change in the other particle. Here comes the spooky part: we can separate our “entangled buddies” as far as we can, they will still remain entangled. A change in one of them is instantly reflected in the other one, even though they are physically far apart (and I mean different countries!)

Entanglement feels like magic. It is really difficult to wrap our heads around it. And yet, entanglement is a real phenomenon, measurable and reproducible in the lab. And there is more. While for many years entanglement was thought to be a very delicate phenomenon, only observable in the infinitesimally small world of quantum physics (“oh good, our world is immune from that weird stuff”) and quite volatile, recent evidence suggests that entanglement may be much more robust and even much more widespread than we initially thought. Photosynthesis may happen through entanglement, and recent brain data suggest that entanglement may play a role in coherent electrical activity of distant groups of neurons in the brain.

Entanglement is a good cognitive chunk because it challenges our cognitive intuitions. Our minds seem built to prefer relatively mechanic cause-and-effect stories as explanations of natural phenomena. And when we can’t come up with one of those stories, then we tend to resort to irrational thinking, the kind of magic we feel when we think about entanglement. Entangled particles teach us that our beliefs of how the world works can seriously interfere with our understanding of it. But they also teach us that if we stick with the principles of good scientific practice, of observing, measuring, and then reproducing phenomena that we can frame in a theory (or that are predicted by a scientific theory), we can make sense of things. Even very weird things like entanglement.

***
Barry Smith, writer and presenter, BBC World Service series “The Mysteries of the Brain”:

The Senses and the Multi-Sensory

For far too long we have laboured under a faulty conception of the senses. Ask anyone you know how many senses we have and they will probably say five; unless they start talking to you about a sixth sense. But why pick five? What of the sense of balance provided by the vestibular system, telling you whether you are going up or down in a lift, forwards or backwards on a train, or side to side on a boat? What about proprioception that gives you a firm sense of where your limbs are when you close your eyes? What about feeling pain, hot and cold? Are these just part of touch, like feeling velvet or silk? And why think of sensory experiences like seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling as being produced by a single sense?

Contemporary neuroscientists have postulated two visual systems — one responsible for how things look to us, the other for controlling action — that operate independently of one another. The eye may fall for visual illusions but the hand does not, reaching smoothly for a shape that looks larger than it is to the observer.

And it doesn’t stop here. There is good reason to think that we have two senses of smell: an external sense of smell, orthonasal olfaction, produced by inhaling, that enables us to detect things in the environment such food, predators or smoke; and internal sense, retronasal olfaction, produced by exhaling, that enables us to detect the quality of what we have just eaten, allowing us to decide whether we want any more or should expel it.

***
Neri Oxman, architect

It Ain’t Necessarily So

Preceding the scientific method is a way of being in the world that defies the concept of a solid, immutable reality. Challenging this apparent reality in a scientific manner can potentially unveil a revolutionary shift in its representation and thus recreate reality itself. Such suspension of belief implies the temporary forfeiting of some explanatory power of old concepts and the adoption of a new set of assumptions in their place.

Reality is the state of things as they actually exist, rather than the state by which they may appear or thought to be — a rather ambiguous definition given our known limits to observation and comprehension of concepts and methods. This ambiguity, captured by the aphorism that things are not what they seem, and again with swing in Sportin’ Life’s song It Ain’t Necessarily So, is a thread that seems to consistently appear throughout the history of science and the evolution of the natural world. In fact, ideas that have challenged accepted doctrines and created new realities have prevailed in fields ranging from warfare to flight technology, from physics to medicinal discoveries…

It Ain’t Necessarily So is a drug dealer’s attempt to challenge the gospel of religion by expressing doubts in the Bible: the song is indeed immortal, but Sportin’ himself does not surpass doubt. In science, Sportin’s attitude is an essential first step forward but it ain’t sufficiently so. It is a step that must be followed by scientific concepts and methods. Still, it is worth remembering to take your Gospel with a grain of salt because, sometimes, it ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa, it ain’t necessarily so.

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*The World Question Center is part of Edge Foundation, Inc., an organization with a mandate to “promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society.”