"Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere". I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?
"The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part—perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it.
"For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it?
"What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"
—Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol I, p. 3-6 (line breaks added)
That's a real question, there on the last line—what kind of poet can write about Jupiter the god, but not Jupiter the immense sphere? Whether or not Feynman meant the question rhetorically, it has a real answer:
If Jupiter is like us, he can fall in love, and lose love, and regain love.
If Jupiter is like us, he can strive, and rise, and be cast down.
If Jupiter is like us, he can laugh or weep or dance.
If Jupiter is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, it is more difficult for the poet to make us feel.
There are poets and storytellers who say that the Great Stories are timeless, and they never change, they only ever retold. They say, with pride, that Shakespeare and Sophocles are bound by ties of craft stronger than mere centuries; that the two playwrights could have swapped times without a jolt.
Donald Brown once compiled a list of over two hundred "human universals", found in all (or a vast supermajority of) studied human cultures, from San Francisco to the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert. Marriage is on the list, and incest avoidance, and motherly love, and sibling rivalry, and music and envy and dance and storytelling and aesthetics, and ritual magic to heal the sick, and poetry in spoken lines separated by pauses—
No one who knows anything about evolutionary psychology could be expected to deny it: The strongest emotions we have are deeply engraved, blood and bone, brain and DNA.
It might take a bit of tweaking, but you probably could tell "Hamlet" sitting around a campfire on the ancestral savanna.
So one can see why John "Unweave a rainbow" Keats might feel something had been lost, on being told that the rainbow was sunlight scattered from raindrops. Raindrops don't dance.
In the Old Testament, it is written that God once destroyed the world with a flood that covered all the land, drowning all the horribly guilty men and women of the world along with their horribly guilty babies, but Noah built a gigantic wooden ark, etc., and after most of the human species was wiped out, God put rainbows in the sky as a sign that he wouldn't do it again. At least not with water.
You can see how Keats would be shocked that this beautiful story was contradicted by modern science. Especially if (as I described yesterday) Keats had no real understanding of rainbows, no "Aha!" insight that could be fascinating in its own right, to replace the drama subtracted—
Ah, but maybe Keats would be right to be disappointed even if he knew the math. The Biblical story of the rainbow is a tale of bloodthirsty murder and smiling insanity. How could anything about raindrops and refraction properly replace that? Raindrops don't scream when they die.
So science takes the romance away (says the Romantic poet), and what you are given back, never matches the drama of the original—
(that is, the original delusion)
—even if you do know the equations, because the equations are not about strong emotions.
That is the strongest rejoinder I can think of, that any Romantic poet could have said to Feynman—though I can't remember ever hearing it said.
You can guess that I don't agree with the Romantic poets. So my own stance is this:
It is not necessary for Jupiter to be like a human, because humans are like humans. If Jupiter is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, that doesn't mean that love and hate are emptied from the universe. There are still loving and hating minds in the universe. Us.
With more than six billion of us at the last count, does Jupiter really need to be on the list of potential protagonists?
It is not necessary to tell the Great Stories about planets or rainbows. They play out all over our world, every day. Every day, someone kills for revenge; every day, someone kills a friend by mistake; every day, upward of a hundred thousand people fall in love. And even if this were not so, you could write fiction about humans—not about Jupiter.
Earth is old, and has played out the same stories many times beneath the Sun. I do wonder if it might not be time for some of the Great Stories to change. For me, at least, the story called "Goodbye" has lost its charm.
The Great Stories are not timeless, because the human species is not timeless. Go far enough back in hominid evolution, and no one will understand Hamlet. Go far enough back in time, and you won't find any brains.
The Great Stories are not eternal, because the human species, Homo sapiens sapiens, is not eternal. I most sincerely doubt that we have another thousand years to go in our current form. I do not say this in sadness: I think we can do better.
I would not like to see all the Great Stories lost completely, in our future. I see very little difference between that outcome, and the Sun falling into a black hole.
But the Great Stories in their current forms have already been told, over and over. I do not think it ill if some of them should change their forms, or diversify their endings.
"And they lived happily ever after" seems worth trying at least once.
The Great Stories can and should diversify, as humankind grows up. Part of that ethic is the idea that when we find strangeness, we should respect it enough to tell its story truly. Even if it makes writing poetry a little more difficult.
If you are a good enough poet to write an ode to an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia, you are writing something original, about a newly discovered part of the real universe. It may not be as dramatic, or as gripping, as Hamlet. But the tale of Hamlet has already been told! If you write of Jupiter as though it were a human, then you are making our map of the universe just a little more impoverished of complexity; you are forcing Jupiter into the mold of all the stories that have already been told of Earth.
James Thomson's "A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton", which praises the rainbow for what it really is—you can argue whether or not Thomson's poem is as gripping as John Keats's Lamia who was loved and lost. But tales of love and loss and cynicism had already been told, far away in ancient Greece, and no doubt many times before. Until we understood the rainbow as a thing different from tales of human-shaped magic, the true story of the rainbow could not be poeticized.
The border between science fiction and space opera was once drawn as follows: If you can take the plot of a story and put it back in the Old West, or the Middle Ages, without changing it, then it is not real science fiction. In real science fiction, the science is intrinsically part of the plot—you can't move the story from space to the savanna, not without losing something.
Richard Feynman asked: "What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"
They are savanna poets, who can only tell stories that would have made sense around a campfire ten thousand years ago. Savanna poets, who can tell only the Great Stories in their classic forms, and nothing more.
Speaking of Hamlet on the savannah:
That link is now broken, unfortunately. Here's a working one.
It's a great story of an anthropologist who, one night, tells the story of Hamlet to the Tiv tribe in order to see how they react to it. They get invested in the story, but tell her that she must be telling it wrong, as the details are things that wouldn't be permissible in their culture. At the end they explain what really must have happened in that story (involving Hamlet being actually mad, due to witchcraft) and ask her to tell them more stories.
I wonder if certain cognitive biases aren't essential to storytelling. You could almost define "story" in terms of the absence of probability - while 'overcoming bias' is to a large extent a matter of forcing oneself to think in probabilistic terms.
(I don't include poetry in this)
"The Great Stories are not timeless, because the human species is not timeless."
Storytelling itself only goes back a few hundred thousand years, but many of the concepts in our stories (murder, lust, betrayal, adultery, etc.) have identifiable homologues in animals. Several appear to go all the way back to the dawn of the complex nervous system.
Prof. Hanson says (or at least he used to say)economics tells us "stories without fools." Economics has the stories about mostly rational actors. But that seems to be why so many people aren't interested in economics, people love those fools. The fools are just so dang compelling and romantic.
Lucretius' On the Nature of Things (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Nature_of_Things) is considered one of the most beautiful epic poem ever written and the subject can be summed up as the rejection of religion in favor of the physical sciences. Written before Christianity even existed, Lucretius describes atoms, the movement of mass, the infinite nature of the universe, and the materialistic nature of the soul. Beautiful indeed.
Reading Lucretius made me realize how long the science vs religion debate has been going on. I was introduced to Lucretius through reading George Santayana, the American Philosopher of aesthetics in particular of literature and poetry. I discovered Santayana at about the same time I discovered E.T. Jaynes which is an weird coincidence since they both seem to base their doctrine on untangling the confusion of the mind projection fallacy. They both argue at length that humans attribute too much of what goes in their head to the real world. Santayana used it to argue that religion is poetry and it is an error to believe it speaks of the real universe when it is only meant to metaphorically and poetically represent our internal thoughts about the world.
I find that even if Santayana was no mathematician, his ideas fit very well with Bayesianity. Here are some select quotes from The Life of Reason:
"Science and common sense are themselves in their way poets of no mean order, since they take the material of experience and make out of it a clear, symmetrical, and beautiful world; the very propriety of this art, however, has made it common. Its figures have become mere rhetoric and its metaphors prose. Yet, even as it is, a scientific and mathematical vision has a higher beauty than the irrational poetry of sensation and impulse, which merely tickles the brain, like liquor, and plays upon our random, imaginative lusts. The imagination of a great poet, on the contrary, is as orderly as that of an astronomer, and as large; he has the naturalist's patience, the naturalist's love of detail and eye trained to see fine gradations and essential lines; he knows no hurry; he has no pose, no sense of originality; he finds his effects in his subject, and his subject in his inevitable world."
"Thought, we are told rightly enough, cannot be accounted for by enumerating its conditions. A number of detached sensations, being each its own little word, cannot add themselves together nor conjoin themselves in the void. Again, experiences having an alleged common cause would not have, merely for that reason, a common object. Nor would a series of successive perceptions, no matter how quick, logically involve a sense of time nor a notion of succession. Yet, in point of fact, when such a succession occurs and a living brain is there to acquire some structural modification by virtue of its own passing states, a memory of that succession and its terms may often supervene. It is quite true also that the simultaneous presence or association of images belonging to different senses does not carry with it by intrinsic necessity any fusion of such images nor any notion of an object having them for its qualities. Yet, in point of fact, such a group of sensations does often merge into a complex image; instead of the elements originally perceptible in isolation, there arises a familiar term, a sort of personal presence."
"When this diversity between the truest theory and the simplest fact, between potential generalities and actual particulars, has been thoroughly appreciated, it becomes clear that much of what is valued in science and religion is not lodged in the miscellany underlying these creations of reason, but is lodged rather in the rational activity itself, and in the intrinsic beauty of all symbols bred in a genial mind. Of course, if these symbols had no real point of reference, if they were symbols of nothing, they could have no great claim to consideration and no rational character; at most they would be agreeable sensations. They are, however, at their best good symbols for a diffused order and a tendency in events; they render that reality with a difference, reducing it to a formula or a myth, in which its tortuous length and trivial detail can be surveyed to advantage without undue waste or fatigue. Symbols may thus become eloquent, vivid, important, being endowed with both poetic grandeur and practical truth."
"Science, which thinks to make belief in miracles impossible, is itself belief in miracles–in the miracles best authenticated by history and by daily life"
Now here's something to sink the teeth into - a sort of challenge - can we do better?
I guess my reaction to this post is a sort of microcosm of my reaction to most of the content of this blog - I think that our biases are -necessary-, in fact, I think they are the way that we think. They are easily exposed and routed out in our interactions with very basic things, but can you tell me how to get rid of my biases in thinking about Category Theory? How do I get rid of my biases when reading the works of Foucault?
Our biases are a consequence of our computational contexts. We cannot get outside of our computational contexts.
Thus, I am beginning to think that the "right work" of the intellectual is to -expose- and -inspire- rather than to -criticize- and -condemn-.
This post speaks to that. We cannot get out of our computational contexts, but let's evolve them together so that we have the foundation required to inspire, yo! Thanks for this post - it's certainly inspired a lot of thought in me.
I think this post covers a lot of "overcoming bias" in total. To pick on thought completions:
Paraphrased completed thought: "I can, and I should, change, because I should, and I can."
Paraphrased completed thought: "An enumeration of possibilities completes me."
Paraphrased completed thought: "A metaphorical approximation is beneath me."
So, let's see.
You wanna play "God"?
Fine. Good luck.
We're less different from the people who lived 10,000 years ago than we like to think. Great Stories are great because of what they tell us about being human. When they cease to apply, will we have to come up with a new term to replace 'human'? What will that term be, and what will that change signify?
Presumably the advantage of making Jupiter into a person rather than a ball of gas is not simply that we get an extra person to think about, but that it also allows us to explain various natural phenomena in a peculiarly satisfying way - as the traces of intelligible actions. Not that these explanations would have much to recommend them if you seriously wanted to understand the pheonomena. But literary writers are not, for the most part, in that business; "poetic truth" is an alienans predication, like "Tennessee whiskey".
"Savannah poets" is a superb coinage, btw. Is it yours?
"What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?" Why pick methane and ammonia of all things? Combined, those make up less than 0.4% (original source page) of the planet by volume. Either by volume or by mass, Jupiter mostly consists of molecular hydrogen.
Jupiter's not just Ammonia and Methane. Hydrogen, mostly
The assertion that you can't write poetry about planets is nonsense, anyway. I personally know of hundreds of limericks referencing Uranus.
People often say things like that, and it's quite silly. We don't learn things from those stories. Learning is quite unlike the response the stories generate, and if learning were what attracted us to them, they wouldn't have that universal appeal. What they generate is recognition. The "Great Stories" are collections of social interaction elements, patterns that natural selection has optimized us to detect in observations and recountings of events.
They're also incredibly boring to anyone willing to wrench their powers of analysis away from the thrall of their social-operations modules and look at them directly.
@ Caledonian: eh? But why would the ability to suspend one's social-operations module at will make it boring to look at stories while using that module? And in what sense is one seeing them "directly" when one stops treating them as simulated social interactions?
Perhaps "learning" is the wrong word. But "recognition" seems too restrictive to capture everything that makes a good story good. There's also surprise - when an author uses the reader's capacity for recognition against them. Surely you admit that this is pretty much the life-blood of storytelling. And, for that matter, it strikes me that it probably can teach you something - about your own inferential dispositions, if nothing else.
Lake, as far as I know, "savanna poets" is my coinage. (Savannah is a city.)
Sebastian, I was just quoting Feynman, I didn't think to look up the composition of Jupiter directly. I'd call it 'ironic', but it wouldn't really be any less ironic if I'd believed Wikipedia instead of Feynman.
Tom McCabe, complex nervous systems haven't been around forever either. Ben Jones, 10,000 years is not really a very long amount of time.
Caledonian, if human stories bore you, what interests you?
Not to mention a bitchin' soap opera.
I'd call it 'ironic', but it wouldn't really be any less ironic if I'd believed Wikipedia instead of Feynman. What about believing the NASA page used as a source for the WP article instead of Feynman?
Humans aren't real?
Fictional humans are real?
Wait, what were we talking about? What do we need to taboo?
Human stories aren't.
Since I've committed to this thread, I might raise another (tangential?) issue. Are you (Elezier) entirely certain of your understanding of evolutionary biology? I'm by no means an expert, but look at what you wrote here: "Anger exists in Homo sapiens because angry ancestors had more kids. There's no other way it could have gotten there."
The first sentence is true only in the most trivial sense. Noam Chomsky explained this well: "While it is true in a very vague sense (it's correct to say that systems we now have developed through evolution, through natural selection), it's important to recognize how little we're saying when we say that. For example, it is certainly not necessarily the case that every particular trait that we have is the result of specific selection, that is, that we were selected for having that trait."
Thus, taken together, your second statement strongly implies two things
As Chomsky points out, implication #2 is simply untenable and untrue. Implication #1 is an empirical matter that must be proved, if, indeed, it even can be proved.
There's another statement of yours that I recently read which strikes me as patently, fundamentally wrong: "But if faith is a true religious adaptation, I don't see why it's even puzzling what the selection pressure could have been.
Heretics were routinely burned alive just a few centuries ago. Or stoned to death, or executed by whatever method local fashion demands. Questioning the local gods is the notional crime for which Socrates was made to drink hemlock."
Setting aside the flawed assumptions of your argument (namely, that religion is a human universal), here you seem to disregard the crucial warning issued by G.C. William against misuse of the concept of "adaptation" (even as you rightly call attention to his criticisms of "group selection"): "Evolutionary adaptation is a special and onerous concept that should not be used unnecessarily, and an effect should not be called a function unless it is clearly produced by design and not by chance. When recognized, adaptation should be attributed to no higher a level of organization than is demanded by the evidence." (Williams 1966)
It is simply wrong to base an argument of human function on evidence for which natural selection cannot act. First, even strong selective pressure acting over mere centuries is generally not sufficient to produce adaptation (natural selection can act fast, but not that fast). This is especially true when that selective pressure arises in an environmental context fundamentally altered from the ancestral environment.
Second, arguments about human adaptations must always be couched in terms of the ancestral environment in which the ancestral traits were "groomed". Our ability to prove an instance of adaptation is directly proportional to our ability to prove certain aspects about the ancestral environment and our ability to prove certain aspects about the ancestral genome. The recent goings on during the Middle Ages have had no statistically significant effect that one may characterize as 'an adaptation'.
In my view, it is far more likely that religion and faith are maladaptive or nonadaptive evolutionary artifacts correlated (genetically or environmentally) to certain other adaptive emotional organs and that the peculiar stimuli of our modern environment elicits these religious emotions quite incidentally, quite accidentally. This is my own intuitive speculation, though. In theory, these matters can be settled empirically, depending upon our capacity to illuminate the vagaries of the ancestral environment.
Let me end with a quote from Donald Symons "The Evolution of Human Sexuality", which has inspired my thinking on these matters and to which I point at as an example of excellent literature:
"The complexity of human interaction and the subtleties of judgment and calculation required to achieve reproductive success in any given society may be sufficient to account for the evolution of learning potentials that make possible--as an incidental effect--human social variability.
I believe that this possibility should receive serious consideration especially since it is in many ways uncongenial. It is uncongenial, for example, because we value creativity and do not value Machiavellian intrigue, and to propose that intrigue is a function of the human brain and creativity is an incidental effect may seem to elevate and justify the former and to denigrate and trivialize the latter; but this is true only to the extent that natural is equated with good. This point of view is also uncongenial because it implies that a great deal of human variability observed today probably is not explicable by any general scheme but is largely a product of historical circumstances. If this is true, it seriously compromises the possibility of finding general explanations for human behavior. But however uncongenial this may be to our satisfaction in intellectual generalization, it may be true nonetheless." (Symons 1979)
I suggest you follow the same advice you offered to (amateur and ancient) philosophers: do not be too eager to offer a generalized answer to all questions of human function. It is possible that some knowledge is simply beyond our scope of knowing. We should therefore confront and internalize the limitations knowledge capacity, so that we might better formulate questions that lie within reachable bounds.
I didn't infer either of those from his statement. He simply stated an undeniable evolutionary fact: anger exists because our angry ancestors had more kids.
Nothing there suggests anger was directly selected for, it's perfectly reasonable to think anger was simply associated with a trait that improved fitness. This is especially true if anger is an undesirable trait. If you assumed anger was selected for, but realized it was undesirable so that selection did not make much sense, you would need to recognize that you were confused, and start asking more questions. You'd soon realize that anger was associated with other traits, and could "piggyback" on desirable traits.
Then the statement makes perfect sense, and since it is clearly not attempting to describe why anger is here, you understand that anger is here because it was associated with desirable traits, which is why we can bemoan the concept of anger at all.
Also, everything I've read from Eliezer so far screams "ABSOLUTELY NOT!" to #2. So too, I never would have made that inference from his statement.
Um, I just wrote a rather lengthy reply here and it was somehow flagged by a bot as being spam. That's extremely disheartening, as I suspect that by the time it gets reviewed by a human and posted, no one will be around to see it. What kind of bot mistakes such an unmistakably authentic post for spam, for Chrissake?
Systems that initially attract my attention, are sufficiently ordered so that I can form expectations about them, but sufficiently unpredictable such that my expectations are violated in comprehensible-yet-unexpected ways. If they don't appeal enough for me to generate expectations in the first place, there's no potential for interest. If they're so conventional and banal that the expectations I do generate are always met, there's no potential for interest either. If they're so random or nonsensical that I can't anticipate at all, there's no interest.
For general examples of such phenomena, I recommend studying why people found Joss Whedon's Firefly so exceptional. Pay particular attention to Wash playing with the dinosaurs, and Mal violating the warranty on the engine intake.
The Planck Dive
The "human stories" are potato chips: fat, salt, and starch, devoid of real nutritional value in our modern society, but appealing to ancient instinctual drives that urge us to gorge ourselves on them.
Caledonian, this post also reminded me of that part of "The Planck Dive." But we should distinguish between the archetypal myths Sachio derides and human stories in general. I should think that Greg Egan's works still count as "human stories," even if they're not always about humans exactly. The characters are still lovable, comprehensible--I should say social. That there's physics doesn't eliminate the (trans)human element.
It seems to me that when Egan attempts to make his books more 'literary' by making concepts secondary to the 'human interest' elements of characterization and emotional struggle, his writing becomes stilted and awkward. When he lets characters and their personal perspectives be straw dogs that illustrate and instantiate transcendent concepts, the work is excellent and the story flows.
The best science fiction has always been so deeply concerned with ideas that they are treated as more vital than the story's human elements, and it has been criticized on those grounds as not being true literature. I say literature is a pointless appeal to hardwired primate thought patterns that are of little value or interest.
That's a pretty big claim. Do you never watch television? Listen to music? Talk to other primates? Or is it just all transcendentalism, all the time?
Also, what notion of value do you have in mind, if not something that pushes your primate buttons? And if you're so down on the pleasures of narrative, why read sci-fi at all? Why not just, you know, read sci?
People who don't read preceding posts make baby Jesus turn over in his grave.
"... if not something that presses your primate buttons."
As if "transcendent concepts" isn't a primate button. Don't fool yourself into thinking that Science has some mind-independent value that "characterization and emotional struggle" lack.
@Caledonian You say you're not interested in human stories, but instead in:
"Systems that initially attract my attention, are sufficiently ordered so that I can form expectations about them, but sufficiently unpredictable such that my expectations are violated in comprehensible-yet-unexpected ways."
Don't humans meet these criteria?
Science is useful for predicting and manipulating the world. This is a value quite independent of any enjoyment we might derive from the contemplation of its concepts and findings.
Enjoyment for its own sake is a death spiral.
What, you mean you start finding it everywhere? If only.
The problem with talking about Jupiter being a ball of gas, is that it cannot feel, and emotion is the primary goal of poetry. You certainly can have stories that endure science, but putting a story on Jupiter is not changing the story much at all. One example that I personally enjoy is Star Trek. It dealt with issues in a different way, but they were still the same issues affecting current society. I fail to understand what you are asking future poets to do. Emotion is the same, the only thing poets can do is change the setting.
Doug_S.'s link is broken, so I'll stick my own in.
This post is different. For it is poetic. And I liked to read it in a different way than I liked to read other posts. Thanks for putting simple words into a beautiful form, Eliezer.