MUSING WHILE I WORK
by Clare O'Brien
This morning an item on my phone caught my eye. It wasn't the kind of content I'd usually go for - a podcast of a debate between three academic philosophers. But something about the title - a quote from Leonard Cohen's Anthem - made me hit play. And I was captivated.
The premise of their discussion was simple. Why does our current thinking about the world - whatever field we're working in - throw up so many paradoxes? Why can't we arrive at a unified theory of everything, as Stephen Hawking wanted so badly to do? Is it all down to our human limitations, our inability to understand the complexity of the universe we live in, or is something else going on here?
The three participants were an entertainment in themselves. Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek humorously locked horns with post-realist philosopher Hilary Lawson - referee Shahidha Bari accused them at one point of "violently agreeing" with each other - while Oxford metaphysician Sophie Allen tried hard to get a word in edgeways.
But after nearly half an hour of discussion, one glorious truth emerged: there is no truth. That paradox, mentioned at the start of Hilary Lawson's initial pitch, shows us the innate limitations of language when we try to describe - well, anything at all really. If there's no truth, how can that very statement be true? Which means... but that way madness lies, or at least the meaningless tedium of a circular argument.
You can watch the whole discussion - whole or in bite-size snippets - HERE. Make up your own mind. But the lesson I took away from it was this: things start to make sense when we stop needing them to. It's not that we're too stupid to work out what the universe is, exactly - it's more that the universe is resistant to that kind of explanation.
It's like a creative idea you can't pin down, or which evaporates as soon as you think you've caught it. We know from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice that looking behind us to check something is definitely there means it will slide away from us, back into whatever chaotic flux it came from. Sometimes the things we glimpse out of the corner of our eyes, or which we are barely aware of, just out of earshot - are the most powerful things of all.
That's not to say that everyday theories, routines and mechanisms aren't useful. We understand on a local level how to build a house that doesn't collapse, or how to use technology to observe the universe. We can have certainty, closure, about finite things, so we can successfully get stuff done.
But in the end, the three philosophers agreed that on a macro level, reality is probably unknowable. It natural state is to be open rather than closed. There are no easy answers, no theories of everything. And we should probably stop trying to force it to deliver them.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
- T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Several hours later, I was catching up with Andrew Marr's Sunday news digest on BBC iPlayer. One of Marr's guests was the physicist Brian Cox, currently engaged not in teaching undergraduates but in homeschooling his ten-year-old son and contributing to lockdown resources for the nation's children. On being asked to sum up the value of science on the curriculum, he referred to Richard Feynman's 1955 article:
"What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account...then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel....if we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, then we must keep the door to the unknown ajar."
Personally, I find it a huge relief to be unburdened of the need to try to know everything. Not only is it doomed to failure, it also encourages all the worst behaviour of which I'm capable. It feeds my ego at the expense of my curiosity. And on a societal level, it leads to totalitarianism of one sort or another.
We think we crave certainty. Especially in times like the present, we feel exposed by our helplessness and self-doubt in the face of something new - in this case, a virus we know nothing about. We may, with the help of science, solve this problem, close down the vulnerabilities and uncertainties it forces us to feel. This pandemic may be successfully overcome - only to be replaced by another in a few years' time. Or we may learn from the experience and create a new, better environment for ourselves in which such catastrophes are less likely.
But that's not the same as having all the answers - which can be why the easy, empty promises of politicians usually fail. While they're telling us we can "get back to normal" or "take back control", they're not only selling us a lie: they're depriving us of the opportunity to explore what reality may be: open-ended, ineffable, sublime.