May 1st, 2018
I remember watching a Feynman interview once where he talks about a conversation he had with an artist friend of his on the topic of the beauty of a flower. His friendÂ says to Feynman that he finds the deconstructive tendencies of science as taking away from the beauty of the world as it is comprehended in the human mind, that the relentless insistence on truth and reductivism inherent in the scientific pursuit interferes withÂ our ability to sense and appreciate the beauty which is expressed in the undivided whole of say a flower. Feynman's answer is exactly what you would expect - that he does not agree with the statement and that to him his scientific understanding only adds to the beauty of the flower by being aware of the complexity that nature has managed toÂ endow that flower with and by appreciating the pleasing harmony with which all that chaos and complexity is resolved. Feynman could, in other words, not only appreciate the tender and graceful symbol that a rose is in a boutonniÃ¨re but also be charmed by the scientific processes behind the visual bouquet. I remember being swayed by Feynman's argument then but have had quite a reversal in my thought processes since. On a philosophic level, I have come to think that a relentless pursuit of high minded concepts like rationality, logic, and scientific skepticism should be left to people like FeynmanÂ who have the mental and occupational luxuries to afford them. For common people in the day to day trenches of life, it is far more important to have faith, to believe in what may only be fairy tales and in overarching, even mystical, explanations of life and the world. Rationality, for most people, is disorienting and reductive and (from my own perspective) why bother withÂ such a life when life is meaningless anyway? The counter argument is that there is inherent pleasure to be had in comprehending complexity, truth, and logic and, therefore, it is worth it. However, it is not worth it for those who, let's say, do not have the cultivated mental capacities of somebody like Feynman required for such a comprehension to be made possible. For them, which is most people, there is very little upside.
While driving south on Lakeshore drive a few nights ago, I noticed a full moon over the lake. It had illuminated a group of clouds in the Western night sky and its white iridescence lay quietly on the surface of the placid lake in a long, slender column. The scene transported me to a time in my life about 25-30 years ago. A brick and concrete house in a small town in northÂ India recently delivered from the scorching heat of the day as it slipped motionlessly into the balmy night. Some cots on the roof and the chattering voices of my relativesÂ dropping off one by one as they slept. A vibrant night sky above, quiet, mysterious, and infinite. It appeared both unfathomable and curiously familiar to me. There was the same face on the moon that I had seen countless other times. The constellations were the same as they had always appeared to me. I wondered how far the twinkling objects might have been and sometimes I even shone a flashlight at them hoping for the streak of light, clearly visible in the night sky, to reach them. In hindsight it was a ridiculous thing to do but that is precisely the point.Â The memory of sleeping below the stars and the moon, enraptured by the majesty of it all, sits viscerally in my imagination precisely because the mysterious nature of it spoke to something fundamentally human within me - theÂ need to wonder which is ultimately hinged on not knowing everything. I have come toÂ learnÂ that moon is a hard rocky place and the stars are huge burning masses of hydrogen and that the light I had shone in the small hours of those nights had absolutely no chance in hell of reaching anywhere. I'd forget all this if I could.