If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.
Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.
Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.
Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.
Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.
That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.
Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.
So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?
The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.
In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)
But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.
If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.
But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?
I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.
Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.
So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.
I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?