Wednesday, November 14, 2007
My last post contains these words at the end of the first paragraph: “In this entire upsurge of culture, creativity has been foremost.” Here, I wish to enlarge on this contention, that is, that the act of creativity, which is probably the singularly most important characteristic of the human species, is the very heart and soul of culture or civilization. On these pages the reader will have noted that I have links to several excellent sites on the gift of creativity.
Creativity entails a lot of aspects which I will number randomly as follows:
(i) Originality: Mlodinow points out that the great Nobel Laureate for Physics, Richard Feynman always seemed to avoid learning new things from papers and books. In consequence Professor Feynman was famous for always insisting on deriving new results himself, on understanding them his way. To this extent he sought to stay young by constantly applying what may be termed as a “beginner’s outlook.” Many experts in Buddhism and Meditation speak of the “beginner’s mind” as being central to any form of Meditation. (See Mlodinow, op.cit., p. 79 et passim)
(ii) Love for one’s Subject/Job/Vocation: All books, as indeed do any works of art in any medium, by creative geniuses underline the fact that we must love what we are doing. If we don’t we will find our professions or jobs soul-destroying. Such people also speak about passion and enthusiasm for their subject or work. “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful" is a quotation I like from the famous Medical Doctor, Missionary and Humanitarian named Albert Schweitzer. In this regard Richard P Feynman advocated that a scientist must find his real love, that’s why he chose physics over mathematics and engineering, because his heart truly lay there even though he was also deeply interested in the other two areas. Mlodinow, his one-time colleague also relates how after doing his Ph. D. and a year with Feynman he, too, found his love, namely writing popular books about physics and writing science fiction. He would go on to be a script writer for Star Trek: The Third Generation. Now for a quotation from a brilliant film maker along the same lines: "If I'd have gone to art school, or stayed in anthropology, I probably would have ended up back in film ... Mostly I just followed my inner feelings and passions ... and kept going to where it got warmer and warmer, until it finally got hot ... Everybody has talent. It's just a matter of moving around until you've discovered what it is." ~ George Lucas
(iii) Dreams: We also need to be a “dreamer” in the sense of being able to tap into what our unconscious may be telling us through our dreams. If we stay in touch with our dreams we will get a taste of their wonder and magic. Many famous scientists have got their inspiration for solutions to problems or even totally new ideas from exploring their dream world. This is exactly how the discoverer of the shape of the Benzene ring found his solution – by dreaming of the image of the snake eating its tail, i.e., the ouroboros. On the top right of my blog page I have quoted a famous statement on staying in touch with our dreams, so there is no need to quote it here.
(iv) Change, not Results: “If you focus on results you will never change. If you focus on change you will get results.” Jack Dixon. This quotation speaks for itself.
(v) Take on hard problems: "I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it." Pablo Picasso. Most people would shy away from what Picasso suggests here. Feynman also had a similar philosophy of creativity, and he always chose the hardest of problems in physics to solve, especially in his later life. That’s part of the reason why he would get the Nobel Prize and not others.
(vi) “Begin where you are” : I also like the following quotation because it is very positive and consoling: "Don't let life discourage you; everyone who got where he is had to begin where he was." Richard L. Evans.
(vii) Courage to Make Mistakes: I remember a father of a friend quoting this lovely proverb: “The man, who makes no mistakes, never makes anything.” So the creative person must have courage and not be afraid to make mistakes or to fail. "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep." Scott Adams (1957 - ____) US cartoonist, author "The Dilbert Principle."
(viii) Creativity comes from trust. “Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work." Rita Mae Brown (1944 - ) US writer, playwright "Starting From Scratch," 1988.
(ix) Patience and Readiness: “The germ of future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready…” Tschaikovsky.
(x) Creation and Chaos: “Invention does not consist in creating out of a void, but out of chaos.” Mary Shelley
(xi) Innate Ideas: “There is nothing that we imagine that we do not already know. And our ability to imagine is our ability to remember what we have already once experienced and to apply it to some different situation.” Stephen Spender.
(xii) The Importance of Play and Fun – I recall frequently the phrase “homo ludens.” From my college days “…an important part of the creative process is play. At least for some scientists. It is hard to maintain as you get older. You get less playful. But you shouldn’t, of course!” RPF again (Quoted Mlodinow, op.cit., p. 81. See also p. 119)
(xiii) Retain a Childlike Attitude: “Feynman was still a child. Fresh, gleeful, playful, mischievous, curious, interested…Hanging around a grown kid like Feynman made you question things…Like my young boys, RPF was startlingly honest with people, including himself…” (ibid., p. 121)
(xiv) Continually ask questions: Be a Socratic wasp like R.P. Feynman or even Socrates himself. Dare to ask the “unthinkable” or “unfashionable” questions, even if they are ridiculous because they may lead somewhere interesting and provide a way of looking at another problem even. See Mlodinow, op.cit., p 101 where RPF is ever the Socratic wasp constantly niggling and annoying one with questions.
(xv) Inspiration comes from Aesthetics (Beauty): On Descartes’ discovery of the true origin of the rainbow: “I would say his inspiration was that he thought rainbows were beautiful.” RPF, quoted Mlodinow, op.cit., p. 118
(xvi) How the Scientist’s Imagination differs from the Writer’s Imagination: A scientist’s imagination is always checked by experiment while for a writer or artist there “isn’t the same degree or sharpness and absoluteness that the scientist deals with.” RPF, quoted Mlodinow, op.cit., p. 131.
(xvii) The Importance of Risk Taking: "Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth." ~ Katherine Mansfield.
(xviii) Be True To Your Real Self: "Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else." ~ Judy Garland. Or take this quotation from a poet: "To be nobody -- but yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting." - e.e. cummings
(xix) Creativity is Like Music: "Most people live and die with their music still unplayed. They never dare to try." - Mary Kay Ash
(xx) Creativity is about Change: "We must always change, renew, rejuvenate ourselves; otherwise we harden." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Above I have uploaded a picture of a puppet in the early stages of its making. I took this picture in January 2007.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
What is Culture Anyway?
Ever since humankind first came together in co-operative groups to form the earliest of societies and from there the earliest civilizations, there has always been a thrust towards the development of culture or cultures. This growth includes everything from beliefs (religions), rules of behaviour, law and art in all its forms to the various technologies and the related sciences. In this entire upsurge of culture, creativity has been foremost.
We have all been indoctrinated by our various cultures to believe in their ultimate values. The major claim of practically every culture or civilization is that humankind is a unique animal at the very top of the Animal Kingdom, endowed with the highest intelligence, an unerring moral code and a creativity of an order not known among the lesser animals. There are indeed some modern philosophers who cast some doubt upon these claims which they see to be extravagant to say the least. Here, I am referring to such modern philosophers as John Gray who has written much; among which is his celebrated, deep and provocative work Straw Dogs, which I shall review later in these pages.
However, the greatest teacher that we poor fallible beings have is our very own history – that is, if we choose not to re-write it to cover up our own glaring mistakes and, indeed even our own crimes. A cursory glance at the history of the world will show that even the greatest of civilizations eventually fell and disappeared – the ancient Minoan civilization, the ancient Chinese dynasties, the Egyptian, and the Sumerian cultures, and then the Greek and Roman Empires to name just some of them. So culture is neither eternal nor infallible! In this light how meaningful (valuable) are values? Are they also only short-term? Or do they exist somewhere out there as eternal essential truths in a Platonic or idealist sense? With all our cultures and values and creativity glance across the pages of history and look at the wars engaged in by seemingly “civilized” and “cultured” beings. One would want to be a totally blind optimist or a naïve gullible individual to still believe in the “perfectibility of humankind” and the myth of “infinite progress.” In short, we have an abiding need for good strong honest historians using a sharp unbiased methodology or methodologies.
The likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, to name just three murderous and genocidal dictators in the twentieth century, have taught us that culture of itself is only skin deep to say the least. In times of conflict, conflagration and total war, civilization with all its high culture breaks down and quickly ceases to be – murder, rape and pillage become part of the disorder. Chaos reigns and ethics seem to get lost along with other cultural concerns. However, the Nuremberg trials and the consequence Universal Declaration of Human Rights sought to re-establish, (or was it really to establish for the first, second or third or nth times?) universal and ultimate rights which exist beyond and above any particular culture. Good questions to ask here are “Do rights exist above and beyond cultures?” Or “Can rights exist at all if there are no cultures in the first place for them to exist in?” Another question would be, “Is it only when humankind becomes cultured that he/she becomes aware of rights anyway?”
I’m just raising questions, not suggesting answers. Oftentimes it is more important to dwell at length on the questions rather than giving an all-too-quick answer. Let us be our own most severe critics not alone in all that we do, but also in all that we hold dear. By doing so we shall surely end up with a far better world for our children to live in.
Above I have uploaded a picture of The National Library, Paris, a wonderful building designed and built in the shape opened books. I took this picture in August 2007. This building, while an intrinsic part of architectural culture, is also the repository of many works of culture in the form of books and other documents from the past millennia right up till today.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The Aesthetics of the Pursuit of Knowledge
Aesthetics is the philosophical study of beauty in nature and in art. This is a rather general definition, but it will suffice for my purposes here. The German philosopher Kant gave the real impulse to aesthetics as a separate study in philosophy. In Kant’s view, aesthetic judgment is unlike either theoretic (that is, cognitive) judgment or practical (that is, moral) judgment, in that it is effected entirely subjectively, solely in reference to the subject himself or herself. In his Critique of Judgment (1790) Kant was to argue that aesthetic judgment provides the essential focus for connecting the theoretical and practical aspects of our nature. It can thus reconcile the worlds of nature on the one hand and freedom on the other. I find Kant’s understanding of aesthetics helpful.
Mlodinow writes about the beauty of physics, especially the beauty of theoretical physics, with great passion and clarity. One can see its appeal immediately. It shares its beauty, I would argue with mysticism (or spirituality, not necessarily religion or theology which, uncoupled from spirituality can be both very rigid, partisan and in short down right fascist), and certain types or styles of philosophy and theology which are more open-ended, more open-minded and far more speculative. I return here to Dr. Mlodinow’s clear words on the relation between physics and aesthetics – they are worth quoting: “Most physicists seeking a unified field theory demand even more: They seek to show how all the forces of nature arise from a single more fundamental force, an underlying principle. Though there is little experimental evidence that this is actually true of nature (or that it isn’t), they seek such a theory anyway, out of an aesthetic sense, or out of faith that somewhere there is a single key to all of nature’s laws. Such a unified theory would be the ultimate triumph of Greek-style physics. It is in the search for such a theory that Einstein spent most of his life, his post-relativity years, gradually drifting from the mainstream of physicists, who were more focused on more practical issues.” (op.cit., pp. 67-68. The italics in this quotation are mine.)
I am reminded here of that old dry stick of a character in George Elliot’s wonderful philosophical novel Middlemarch. I refer to, of course, the Rev Dr Casaubon who was seeking the “elusive key to all mythologies.” While this Rev Dr was far from open-minded his quest is somewhat universal. One is also reminded here again of what now seems rather futile and arcane, namely, the quest of the Alchemists who sought to transmute the common or base metals into gold or silver and also their quest to find the “elixir of life," also called the “panacea of life,” that is, a remedy that supposedly would cure all diseases and prolong life indefinitely. They also sought a “universal solvent,” a substance in which everything would dissolve. However, it is important to point out that Alchemy plays a legitimate and historical role in the development of Science. No matter how silly it may appear now, it did play a role as a stepping stone to solider ground as it were. In this light they WIKI gives a comprehensive definition of Alchemy as “In the history of science, alchemy refers to both an early form of the investigation of nature and an early philosophical and spiritual discipline, both combining elements of chemistry, metallurgy, physics, medicine, astrology, semiotics, mysticism, spiritualism, and art all as parts of one greater force.” In short, then, it is the “aesthetic” thrust of spirituality, meditation, open-ended philosophy and non-denominational theology, alchemy and indeed of all the arts and sciences of which physics is a proud member that I refer to here in keeping with Mlodinow’s approach to theoretical physics.
Dr. Mlodinow refers to the beauty of the quest for the underlying principle of all of nature or of reality as we know it as the quest for “a unified field theory.” (op. cit., passim) Here, it is important to inform the reader that there are four known forces in nature: (1) Electromagnetism, (2) Gravity, (3) The Strong Force and (4) The Weak Force. We may describe (1) thus: Electromagnetism works on the principle that an electric current through a wire generates a magnetic field. This magnetic field is the same force that makes metal objects stick to permanent magnets. In a bar magnet, the magnetic field runs from the north to the south pole. In a wire, the magnetic field forms around the wire. If we wrap that wire around a metal object, we can often magnetize that object. In this way, we can create an electromagnet. Then there is the theory of “Quantum Electrodynamics” upon which Feynman did such valuable work in explaining, namely the theory of the electromagnetic force that governs, among other things, the behaviour of the electrons that orbit the nucleus of the atom. We may describe (2) above thus: Each particle of matter attracts every other particle with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is Newton’s definition as I learned it in Leaving Certificate Physics over 30 years ago. Newton called it the Law of Universal Gravitation. Needless to say Einstein went on to transcend this brilliant law with his own mind-blowing theories. The Strong Force (3) refers to the potentially much more violent interactions that take place within the nucleus of the atom – between the protons and neutrons. Though protons are subject to the same electromagnetic force that governs the behaviour of the atomic electrons, “these interactions are dominated by a new force, a force that is far stronger than the electromagnetic force. It is fittingly called the ‘Strong Force.’ ” (Mlodinow, op. cit., p. 3) The theory describing this new force is called “Quantum Chromodynamics.” As regards this fourth force (4) called “The Weak Force” I am a very confused neophyte. From reading bits from here and there in books and on the Web it would appear to be a fundamental force of nature that underlies some forms of radioactivity, and that governs the decay of unstable subatomic particles such as mesons (I don’t know what they are at all), and initiates the nuclear fusion reaction that fuels the Sun. Now it seems physicists are engaged in finding a “unified field theory” that would link all these four forces together. It appears that a physicist called Schwartz has suggested a very workable theory called “String Theory” which seeks to explain and elucidate such a “unified theory.” This is all beyond my elementary grasp of physics. But the whole aesthetic thrust of the enterprise inspires and excites me like when I first read with growing excitement The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism some twenty or more years ago. This title says it all, I suppose. It was written in 1975 by physicist Fritjof Capra, published by Shambhala Publications of Berkeley, California It was a bestseller in the United States, and has been published in 43 editions in 23 languages.
Whatever about all the possible criticisms one can level at Alchemy, modern New Age approaches to Science, spiritualities and mysticisms of all types, and indeed the work of the physicist Fritjof Capra and his colleagues, not to mention the researches and findings of more mainline scientists, I feel Mlodinow has put his finger on the basis of the whole thing, namely humankind’s desire for meaning which is so brilliantly illustrated in his aesthetic sense and thrust of all forms of knowledge. I think such great psychologists and psychiatrists like Jung and Frankl would very much agree. After all, the search for meaning of Frankl is precisely Jung’s theory of individuation and surely this thrust for meaning at the very heart of the human psyche is mirrored in Mlodinow’s aesthetic sense of the search for knowledge in the sciences in general and in physics in his particular case.
Above I have placed my favourite symbol that of the Yin Yang which in my opinion is one of the more inclusive symbols we have at least as regards spirituality and psychology.