“…an anchor in the cosmic swirl.”

Looking through some blog sites that I once frequented (but have recently neglected) I saw that John Horgan’s Cross Check had a piece on George Johnson’s book Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order. This quickly caught my attention because Horgan and Johnson figured prominently in my mind in the late 90’s. In the first paragraph Horgan writes:

Fire alarmed me, because it challenged a fundamental premise of The End of Science , which I was just finishing.

In the mid-nineties, I knew that Horgan was a staff writer for Scientific American and I had kept one of his pieces on quantum physics in my file of interesting new ideas. When I heard about The End of Science I got a copy and very much enjoyed it. I had begun writing, and was trying to create a new beginning for myself. This included my decision to leave New York (where I had lived my whole life) and Manhattan in particular, where I had lived for about seventeen years. In the end, it was Johnson’s book that gave my move direction. I wouldn’t just move to a place that was warmer, prettier, and easier. I decided to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In his original review of Fire in the Mind, Horgan produced a perfect summary of the reasons I chose Santa Fe. He reproduced this review on his blog in response to the release of a new edition:

In New Mexico, the mountains’ naked strata compel historical, even geological, perspectives. The human culture, too, is stratified. Scattered in villages throughout the region are Native Americans such as the Tewa, whose creation myths rival those of modern cosmology in their intricacy. Exotic forms of Christianity thrive among both the Indians and the descendants of the Spaniards who settled here several centuries ago. In the town of Truchas, a sect called the Hermanos Penitentes seeks to atone for humanity’s sins by staging mock crucifixions and practicing flagellation.

Lying lightly atop these ancient belief systems is the austere but dazzling lamina of science. Slightly more than half a century ago, physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory demonstrated the staggering power of their esoteric formulas by detonating the first atomic bomb. Thirty miles to the south, the Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1985 and now serves as the headquarters of the burgeoning study of complex systems. At both facilities, some of the world’s most talented investigators are seeking to extend or transcend current explanations about the structure and history of the cosmos.

Santa Fe, it seemed, would not only be a nice place to live, it would be a good place to think. But I should stop reminiscing and get to the point, which has to do with Johnson’s book and a few related topics which Horgan pointed to in his suggestions for further reading.   Before I look at those suggestions, lets see why they were there.

Horgan characterizes Johnson’s book as “one that raises unsettling questions about science’s claims to truth.” Johnson puts forward a simple description of the view that characterizes Fire in the Mind in the Preface to the new edition.

Our brains evolved to seek order in the world. And when we can’t find it, we invent it. Pueblo mythology cannot compete with astrophysics and molecular biology in attempting to explain the origins of our astonishing existence. But there is not always such a crisp divide between the systems we discover and those we imagine to be true.

Horgan credits Johnson with providing, “an up-to-the-minute survey of the most exciting and philosophically resonant fields of modern research,” and goes on to say, “This achievement alone would make his book worth reading. His accounts of particle physics, cosmology, chaos, complexity, evolutionary biology and related developments are both lyrical and lucid.” But the issues raised, and battered about a bit by Horgan, have to do with what one understands science to be, and what one could mean by truth.  Johnson argues that there is a fundamental relationship between the character of pre-scientifc myths and scientific theories.  For Horgan, this brought Thomas Kuhn to mind and hence a reference to one of his posts from 2012, What Thomas Kuhn Really Thought about Scientific “Truth.”

While pre-scientific stories about the world are usually definitively distinguished from the scientific view, the impulse to explore them does occur in the scientific community.  I, for one, was  impressed some years ago when I saw that the sequence of events in the creation story I learned from Genesis somewhat paralleled scientific ideas (light appeared, then light was separated from darkness, sky from water, water from land, then creatures appeared in the water and sky followed by creatures on the land). The effectiveness of scientific theories, however, is generally accepted to be the consequence of the theories being correct. One of the things that inspires books like Johnson’s, however, is that science hasn’t actually diminished the mystery of our existence and our world. The stubborn strangeness of quantum-mechanical physics, the addition of dark matter and dark energy to the cosmos, the surprises in complexity theories, the difficulties understanding consciousness, all of these things stir up questions about the limits of science or even what it means to know anything.

Horgan’s also refers to the use of information theory to solve some of the physic’s mysteries, where information is treated as the fundamental substance of the universe. He links to a piece where he argues that this can’t be true.  But I believe Horgan is not seeing the reach of the information theses. According to some theorists, like David Deutsch, information is always ‘instantiated,’ always physical, but always undergoing transformation. It has, however, some substrate independence. Information as such includes the coding in DNA, the properties within quantum mechanical systems, as well as our conceptual systems. On another level, consciousness, is described by Giulio Tononi’s model as integrated information.

The persistence of mystery doesn’t cause me to wonder about whether scientific ideas are true or not. It leads me to ask more fundamental questions like –  What is science? How did it happen? Why or how was it perceived that mathematics was the key? I believe that these are the questions lying just beneath Johnson’s narrative.

The development of scientific thinking is an evolution, that is likely part of some larger evolution. It is real, it has meaning and it has consequences. I wouldn’t ask if it’s true. It is what we see when we hone particular skills of perception.  Mathematics is how we do it. Like the senses,  mathematics builds structure from data, even when those structures are completely beyond reach. When explored directly by the mathematician, he or she probes this structure-building apparatus itself.

I can’t help but interject here something from biologist Humberto Maturana, from a paper published in Cybernetics and Human Knowing  where he comments, “..reality is an explanatory notion invented to explain the experience of cognition.”

Relevant here is something else I found as I looked through Scientific American blog posts. An article by Paul Dirac from the May 1963 issue of Scientific American was reproduced in a 2010 post. It begins:

In this article I should like to discuss the development of general physical theory: how it developed in the past and how one may expect it to develop in the future. One can look on this continual development as a process of evolution, a process that has been going on for several centuries.

In the course of talking about quantum theory, Dirac describes Schrodinger’s early work on his famous equation.

Schrodinger worked from a more mathematical point of view, trying to find a beautiful theory for describing atomic events, and was helped by De Broglie’s ideas of waves associated with particles. He was able to extend De Broglie’s ideas and to get a very beautiful equation, known as Schrodinger’s wave equation, for describing atomic processes. Schrodinger got this equation by pure thought, looking for some beautiful generalization of De Broglie’s ideas, and not by keeping close to the experimental development of the subject in the way Heisenberg did.

Johnson ends his new Preface nicely:

As I write this, I can see out my window to the piñon-covered foothills where the Santa Fe Institute continues to explore the science of complex systems—those in which many small parts interact with one another, giving rise to a rich, new level of behavior. The players might be cells in an organism or creatures in an ecosystem. They might be people bartering and selling and unwittingly generating the meteorological gyrations of the economy. They might be the neurons inside the head of every one of us— collectively, and still mysteriously, giving rise to human consciousness and its beautiful obsession to find an anchor in the cosmic swirl.

2 comments to “…an anchor in the cosmic swirl.”

  • Joselle

    Thanks for pointing this out Shecky. I hadn’t heard it, but did just a few minutes ago. I’m a little out of the loop right now. My husband’s doing a sabbatical at CERN and I’m with him.

    Lisa Randall is very careful about keeping her perspective very clearly scientific, and I think I can understand why, but I have found it, just a bit, too careful.

  • I hope you heard physicist Lisa Randall on NPR’s “On Being” this week… I think parts of it intersect with what you’re talking about here. And at the very end of the interview Krista asks Randall, “Is mystery in your vocabulary? The language of mystery?” To which Randall responds, “Sure. So is solving”:

    Hope you heard physicist Lisa Randall on NPR’s “On Being” this week… I think parts of it intersect with what you’re talking about here. And at the very end of the interview Krista Tippett asks Randall, “Is mystery in your vocabulary? The language of mystery?” To which Randall responds, “Sure. So is ‘solving'”:


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