Monday, November 12, 2012

"A Universe about Change": A Conversation

Excepts from an interesting conversation between author Marilynne Robinson and astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser about science, myth, and the curious way in which contemporary culture and education seem at a loss to adequately cope with each. Also, some remarks about the enterprise of science, its apparent limits, and our inability to comprehend ourselves. Hoping we'll find some relevance to the Metamorphoses. From OnBeing: Links. Podcast. Complete transcript.

Dr. Gleiser: When we look at the whole universe, it is expanding, it's growing, it's changing in time. And so to me I look at things much more as a state of flux, you know, of becoming, of transformation. . . And so the notion that we as humans could come up with a final answer to the mystery of nature it's pushing things a little too far for our capabilities.

Ms. Robinson: Mm-hmm. I teach graduate students. I teach highly educated graduate students and I find that their level of understanding of science is pretty abysmal. And I wonder what it is that makes a culture that really creates its fate and its future, basically, out of science is not telling people, uh, you know, the thing about science, contemporary science, is that it is as profound in its revelation certainly as Galileo ever was, or Copernicus. You know?

Robinson: Well, you know, as far as the scale of what we're learning to know, the psalmist has better intuitions about it than Richard Dawkins. But we're pious toward science. It does in fact criticize itself and overturn itself. It deserves that reputation. But this strange little world that we're presented as being scientific isn't, you know; it's some sort of petrified conception that would have been at home in the 19th century.

Gleiser: You know, the mythic narratives and the scientific narratives, they're both asking the same question: Where did everything come from? . . . I actually wrote a book way before this last one, called The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang. And what I do there is I look at all sorts of different creation myths from cultures around the world in different times in the ways they dealt with the question of creation, you know, the question of the origin of the world, which to me is the most complicated question you can possibly ask. Right? So I call it The Question. Right? So then I go and I look at cosmology in the 20th century, before we had data. And what happened? All the models, the theories that cosmologists use to explain the universe reproduced these mythic ideas. So there was a universe that was cyclic, just like the dancing of Shiva. There were universe that, at least on paper, were created out of a moment in time, which was Friedmann came up with this model in 1922 before Hubble confirmed it. Right? And then there was an eternal universe as well.

Robinson: I think one of the things that is fascinating is that we don't know who we are. Human beings in acting out history describe themselves and every new epic is a new description of what human beings are. Every life is a new description of what human beings are. Every work of science, every object of art is new information. And it is inconceivable at this point that we could say anything final about what the human mind is, because it is demonstrating, you know, in beautiful ways and terrifying ways, that it will surprise us over and over and over again. You know?

Gleiser: Because the way we have dealt with things just won't work for the brain. So what would that be now, right? So there is this whole new notion that comes from complexity theory that the mind is an emergent phenomenon that we can't quite explain that has to do with the concatenation of many different groups of neurons at the same time. So the interesting thing about that is that, if that is true, then new laws will emerge at different levels of complexity. And you can't go from one level to the other level directly. You really need a completely different kind of explanation. And we're not there yet, but it's just an alternative way of thinking about how the brain works. And to me, given the complexity, even if we go there and we gain some level of understanding above what we know now, it's always going to be incomplete . . .

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