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Science And Poetry

Science and poetry — a richly vexed topic badly in need of rethinking.   In my years at the University of Calgary, I came to know Canadian poet Christian Bok, who, to the amazement of all, published a book of poetry that became a best seller both in Canada and the UK.  Prior to that, Christian did his Ph.D work on the long relation between science since Newton and poetry.  His is a subtle understanding, mine a more roughshod version of what I learned from him.

Soon after Newton, with the Anglo-Continental West stunned at the success of Newtonian mechanics and celestial mechanics, Alexander Pope would write: “God said let there be Newton and All was Light.”  His generation of poets celebrated Newton and the new physics and felt that beauty lay in rendering to metaphor what was true in the scientific world view that was rapidly emerging.

But Newton’s physics is a physics of Actual happenings.  The Actual state of the positions and momenta of billiard balls on a table, that is, the “initial conditions”, and the boundary conditions of the table, and Newton’s laws in differential form, yield, by integration (=deduction), the next instantaneous state of the system over a trajectory of states in a state space that is entirely deterministic.

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More, there are only “happenings” in physics. Balls happen to roll down hills. They “Do” nothing, are not agents, cannot act, intend, have no emotions, do not feel.  If the new physics is to be the (reductive) foundation of all knowledge, what was left for us as humans being and becoming in our humanity?

This determinism led 18th century scholars and many lay people to abandon the theistic God that acts in the universe, in favor of a deistic God who created the universe to run with Newton’s laws, wound up the clock of the universe, and let it go.  The deistic God had no further role in the deterministic unfolding of the universe.

In response, Bok told me, the English Romantics arose in rebellion.  Keats wrote of science with its “rule and line,” denuding us of our humanity and, spirituality in face of a deistic God, and wrote with Shelly, Coleridge, and others who were dismayed at science and determined to do battle to regain ground for our deepest humanity.

By the 19th century, the view of poets had become one in which cold science found the facts. It was up to poetry to teach values where science, both because it was only about “facts”, and because of David Hume’s Naturalistic Fallacy arguing that one cannot derive “ought” from “is”, that science was still voiced with respect to values.

So, argued Bok, poetry has bounced of the wall of science since Newton, zigging and zagging.

Then in the 1950s, C.P. Snow wrote his famous essay, The Two Cultures, decrying the fact that the then dominant literati and the lesser esteemed scientists lived in two worlds that could not talk to one another.

In Snow’s vision, science and poetry, like Gould’s science and religion, were two Magisteria, forever apart.

But is it so and is that what we would want? And if not, on what grounds?

I recently read a deeply interesting article in Seed magazine putting forth the view that science and art, science and poetry, inform one another.  Poetry and other arts of any age reflect and enrich the science of their time. Thus, the article pointed out, Bohr, the single most important founder of the strange world of quantum mechanics, took particular joy in Picasso’s cubist paintings in which what was objectively real was rendered in fractured perspectives of faces, bodies, and beasts.  Pauli, a great quantum physicist, was a very close friend of C. Jung whose exploration of mythic structures across cultures fascinated him.  Pauli is said to have said that the deepest pleasure in science is finding a scientific application for a deeply held IMAGE. But that image is metaphor, not science.  So Pauli is telling us that science is born of metaphor.

This is the point of the Seed article: science needs art to supply the metaphors that generate new science.

But why should this be so?

On the dominant view of the mind, the mind is a Turing machine. A Turing machine is utterly definite. Given a position of the reading head, the symbols on the tape, the rules in the machine for moving or not moving on the tape, erasing symbols on the tape depending upon the definite discrete state of the head, and moving to a new state among the discrete states of the head, the Turing machine is an abstraction of Descartes’ animal body as a machine, clockwork in the visions of his day.  Our minds are algorithmic.  Artificial Intelligence is the offspring of this view. On it, science itself is an algorithmic activity needing no metaphor, the signal case of the fully definite, the  mind is nude of rich non-computable allusions, notwithstanding the very interesting connectionist strand in AI.

But is the mind algorithmic?  I think not, and think we need poetry to unite the Two Cultures and rediscover our deeper humanity.

I advance two reasons among many.

First, I tell a tale of a minor invention of mine, the kind we all do every day:  At home in Santa Fe some years ago, I had my laptop on the living room table, plugged into the floor socket below it.  My wife and son were busy walking around the living room.  I feared that they would manage to trip on the cord and pull my laptop off the table, harming it.

I now describe the table.  Three boards on top, four legs of wood, bars spanning between all four pairs of legs, two cracks in one table top board narrowing from a quarter inch to nothing, red flaked paint on the table with very complex patterning, a butterfly on the table, along with my lap top. In addition, one corner of the table top was eight feet from the corner of the kitchen, another corner was four feet from the edge of the fire place and six feet from the door leading outside. The table was on a Mexican tile floor. The table was 238,000 miles from the moon....Do you see that there are INDEFINITELY MANY RELATIONAL FEATURES OF THE TABLE?  That is, there IS NO FINITE DESCRIPTION OF THE TABLE and all its relational features.

Our incapacity to algorithmically prestate the RELEVANT FEATURES, including the indefinitely many relational ones, of the table IS the famous and unsolved “framing problem” of Artifical Intelligence.

Here is what I did.  I jammed the computer cord into one of the cracks on the table, pulled taut the cord from the plug under the floor to the table, and “solved” my problem, for now the rest of the cord was on top of the table, unlikely to be disturbed by my family.

It is a minor triumph of normal human creativity.  Could a robot solve it algorithmically? Not if its “Frame,” again, a problem NEVER solved in AI, did not include as relevant features the affordances of the relevant crack and its relation to the floor socket and cord.  But how would the computer algorithm KNOW the relevant relational features in the indefinite or infinite set of relational features?  This IS the frame problem, unsolved. It turns out that, in practice, it is WE HUMANS who solve the framing problem and program it into the robot with a prestated set of relevant features.

Then how do we do it?

I return in a moment.

Meanwhile, a recent article in Science has an astonishing result. A bunch of normal people are asked, with help from a computer, to fold a protein - a very hard problem. The computer algorithm suggests possible structures.  It turns out that people + computer do a far better job of folding the protein than the computer alone. This suggests, but does not, of course, prove, that the humans are doing something non-algorithmic.

So was I, I claim, in using the crack to solve the laptop problem.

But if we are not algorithmic, if our minds are in the Poised Realm of open quantum systems between closed quantum systems of the Schrodinger equation and the classical world, if we are trans-Turing machines, part quantum, part Poised Realm, part classical, with very new dynamics, the quantum and poised realm aspects of our mind brain body system are NOT algorithmic.

I will expand on this in future blogs, for we can just begin to glimpse ourselves exactly as such Poised Realm non-algorithmic information processing systems.

Back to poetry.  Newton’s determinism and the determinism of algorithms are deeply related.  The AI view is latter day Newton plus Turing. No need for the metaphor richness and allusions of poetry. Just use your algorithmic mind to compute.

But if we are not algorithmic, if the Poised Realm is part open quantum system with its new physics, if life lives partly in the Poised Realm as I increasingly believe it does, then our mind-brain-body systems are trans-Turing quantum, poised realm, classical systems of unknown richness.  Far off, or not so far off, I sense, we will begin to understand meaning and language enabled by such systems that solve their own framing problems, and are enabled by the metaphors of poetry, art, dance, plays, novels, and music.

Beyond the Two Cultures, all the above, know how and know that, feel, intuit, reflect our full human creativity.