Post scriptum (2022, week 22) — Mysteries and the awe of understanding, our brain begs us to slow down, and reflections on ‘passenger time’
Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s Post scriptum: The true appeal of mysteries is in trying to solve them, not in leaving them be; simple awareness is the seed of responsibility; a philosophical guide to ‘passengerhood’; the power of small gestures; the art of active listening; what can we gather from the junk that washes up on shore?; a new elevated park provides a blueprint to cooling cities; and, finally, ‘Defeat,‘ a poem by Kahlil Gibran (with special thanks to Nate Jebb).
Mysteries and the awe of understanding
“Science doesn’t rob the world of wonder. It amplifies it,” Jim Al-Khalili argues in Mysteries Are to Be Embraced, But Also to Be Solved, an adaptation from his most recent book The Joy of Science.
“Some people argue that the cold rationalism of science leaves no room for romance or mystery. Nervous about the rapid advance of science, they feel that the act of searching for answers to things we do not yet understand somehow detracts from their awe and wonder. One reason for this view may be because modern science has shown the universe to have no purpose or end goal, and that humans have evolved on Earth through the process of natural selection based on random genetic mutations and survival of the fittest. This is seen as too bleak an explanation for our existence and implies that our lives have no meaning. When I have found myself explaining my work to non-scientists at social gatherings or dinner parties I have sometimes been made to feel like the ‘learn’d astronomer’ in Walt Whitman’s poem [When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer] — a killjoy, ruining the magic and romance of the stars with tiresome logic and rationalism. But to think that way is misplaced. Many scientists like to quote the American physicist Richard Feynman, who was frustrated by an artist friend of his who could not appreciate what science can give us:
‘Poets say science takes away from the beauty of stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere.’ I too see the stars on a desert night and feel them. But do I see less or more? . . . What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvellous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it?’
Unlocking nature’s secrets requires inspiration and creativity no less impressive than anything in art, music, or literature. The sense of wonder at the nature of reality that science continues to reveal is the polar opposite of the dry, hard facts that some imagine science to be.
You might be surprised to know that many particle physicists were secretly hoping that the famous Higgs particle, discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, would in fact not be found — that despite our best mathematical theories of the fundamental constituents of matter predicting its existence, and despite the years of effort and billions of dollars spent building one of the most ambitious science facilities the world has ever known to hunt for it, it would have been even more exciting if we had confirmed its nonexistence!
You see, if the Higgs didn’t exist, then this would have meant that there was a flaw in our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and that we would have needed to find a different explanation for the properties of elementary particles — an exciting new mystery to solve. Instead, the discovery confirmed what we already suspected. To the curious scientist, verifying an anticipated prediction is less thrilling than a truly unexpected discovery. Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that physicists were unhappy about the confirmation of the Higgs. We still celebrated its discovery, for learning more about the universe, whether the result is a surprise or not, is always better than remaining in ignorance.
Striving to understand the world around us is a defining feature of our species, and science has given us a means to achieve this. But it allows us to do more than simply solve scientific mysteries just for the sake of it; it has also ensured the survival of the human race.”
“Nothing expresses more clearly the importance of curiosity about the world and the value of enlightenment over ignorance than Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. […] According to Plato, the prisoners’ chains represent ignorance, and we cannot blame them for accepting their limited reality at face value based on the evidence and experiences they have, but we also know that there is a deeper truth. Their chains stop them from being able to seek this truth.
In the real world, our chains are not so restrictive, for we can be curious about the world and we can ask questions. Like the freed prisoner, we know that whatever reality we are experiencing, we may still have a limited perspective. We are viewing reality from one frame of reference. In other words, even the freed prisoner might reflect on the possibility that he has simply stepped into a larger ‘cave,’ which is still not showing him the ‘complete’ picture. Likewise, we should acknowledge that our view of reality might also be limited, since mysteries still exist. However, we should not be content with accepting these mysteries but should always try to gain a deeper understanding.
Although Plato’s allegory of the cave goes back over two millennia, there are modern versions of it, particularly as depicted in a number of Hollywood movies, such as The Truman Show and The Matrix. In both these films, a curiosity about the nature of reality leads to enlightenment — to seeing things as they really are. Whether that is itself the ultimate reality or not, it is still a step closer to the truth and is thus always preferable to remaining in ignorance.
My point is that science does not try to dismiss mysteries, as some people might claim. In fact, quite the opposite: It acknowledges that the world is full of mysteries and puzzles that it then tries to understand and solve. If there is strong scientific evidence that an unexplained phenomenon is real, and yet it does notfit into the existing body of knowledge, then that is the most exciting outcome of all, for it points to new discoveries and new knowledge to be gained. Put another way, the enjoyment we derive from doing a jigsaw puzzle is the process of connecting the pieces together. Once it is finished there is a short-lived sense of satisfaction in being able to admire the complete picture, but that doesn’t last very long. In fact, if we’re keen on jigsaws, we’d already be looking forward to starting a new one. This should apply in everyday life too. There are many mysteries out there, but their true appeal is in trying to solve them, not in leaving them be.
We should all ask questions when faced with a mystery, to free ourselves from the ‘chains’ of ignorance and look around us. Ask yourself whether you are seeing the whole picture and how you might find out more.
I am not suggesting, of course, that everyone has to always be on the lookout for things to understand and explain; after all, some people are just less curious than others — and daily life might get a bit intractable if we all behaved in the same way, going around poking our noses into everything, tilting at windmills, not accepting stuff we don’t understand even when we know there are people who do understand it, feeling compelled to reinvent the proverbial wheel over and over. In any case, most people don’t have the luxury of time or resources to go around solving mysteries all the time, even if they wanted to. If you fall into this category, then what is the value of this lesson to you? If you are ever faced with the inexplicable or the bizarre, then of course, it can often be more fulfilling to simply enjoy the mystery — like a fun or perplexing conjuring trick that would be spoiled if we knew how it was done — and that is just fine. But be aware that there are plenty of other examples in daily life that would give you greater joy and fulfillment if you were able to understand them. Enlightenment is almost always preferable to ignorance. If you’re unshackled from your chains, take that opportunity to step outside of the cave and into the light of the sun.”
Mysteries Are to Be Embraced, But Also to Be Solved
One of my favorite TV shows as a teenager was a series called Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World. This was a 13-part…
Our brain begs us to slow down
“Attention shapes our entire experience of the world,” Teodora Stoica writes in Slow down, it’s what your brain has been begging for.
“As defined by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1940, attention is ‘the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion.’ Yet, our attention is not our own. A third of all Americans clock 45 hours or more of work per week, with 8 million reporting 60-plus hours. Our down time isn’t ours either. Compared with 1940, individuals now consume almost 90 times more screen-fed information. That’s 82 hours per week — or 69 per cent of our waking hours. That’s a lot.
Even though the brain is a marvel of neurobiological engineering, it cannot sustain this type of data onslaught. Our focus drops off after somewhere between 90–120 minutes, with multitasking creating a ‘bottleneck’ effect, clogging information from one part of the brain to another. No wonder we engage in daydreaming 47 per cent of the time: we simply can’t keep up with today’s attentional demands.
Paying attention and daydreaming arise from activity between two brain networks. In the same way that a seasoned conductor unifies the sound of performers and controls the pace of the music, the executive control network (ECN) masterfully integrates and directs the activity of different brain regions to complete a specific task. During intermission, the conductor leaves the stage, and the default mode network (DMN) raises the house lights for a mental break. The DMN underlies delicious escapes into one’s own past or future, expansive imaginary flights into the plots of books or movies, and even manipulations of moral gambits. Ideally, the two networks oscillate in opposition: the intermission does not interrupt the performance, and the performance does not start unexpectedly during the intermission. This see-saw action creates harmonious mental states associated with increased creativity, mindfulness, and psychological wellbeing.”
But today, we are so disconnected from our senses that we seldom notice the natural world around us. It wasn’t until she moved to the desert, for example, that Stoica herself notices the rain.
“Pregnant dark clouds smudge the sharp contrasts drawn by the punishing summer sun. The palette changes from verdant amber to moody violet. A sweet earthy smell wafts through the air. Bird songs and cricket chirps are hushed, replaced by booming clouds and howling winds. A pause. And then, in a grandiose and fearsome display, mile-wide opaque curtains of rain drench the scorched earth.
In the desert, the monsoon season slows down the pace of life and refreshes the arid landscape. In this time-pressed, deadline-obsessed, attention-less society, a monsoon season is what our brains are thirsting for,” she writes.
“Simply walking in nature — or, as the Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku — has been shown to reduce blood pressure and increase relaxation. Attuning to nature’s rhythm has also been associated with reduced neural activity in brain areas linked to risk for mental illness and inspired the attention restoration theory, which holds that nature replenishes our ability to concentrate and pay attention. Paying attention to the moment during a walk shifts focus away from the internally generated, anxiety-provoking scenarios, creating much-needed space.
A present-oriented mindset is one of the hallmarks of resiliency, the ability to beneficially reshape our emotional landscape during and after a stressful event (such as a global pandemic). Neuroscience research has shown that mindfulness in highly resilient individuals operates much like a conductor leading a soothing melody while the DMN keeps the lights dimmed low. In a similar vein, deep listening — the practice of giving attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically — has been shown to not only foster personal resilience but to bridge divides between those of different backgrounds. In the same way that negative attentional bias can create fear-based perceptions, positive attentional bias can increase social engagement and decrease emotionally withdrawn behaviour. If we can control what we pay attention to, why not refocus our lens towards the positive aspects of the present moment?
In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019), the artist Jenny Odell describes how, through the simple act of learning to identify local plant and animal species, her preconceived reality was deconstructed:
‘[Attention] can also mean the discovery of new worlds and new ways of moving through them … It can open doors where we didn’t see any, creating landscapes in new dimensions that we can eventually inhabit with others. In so doing, we not only remake the world but are ourselves remade.’
By paying attention to our local natural surroundings, we pay attention to our global surroundings and the part we play in shaping them. As Odell states, ‘simple awareness is the seed of responsibility.’”
Reflections on ‘passenger time’
We are all time’s passengers, witnesses to its passing, which is also our own, says Michael Marder in Philosophy for Passengers: Reflections on ‘Passenger Time’, an excerpt from his book Philosophy for Passengers, a philosophical guide to passengerhood.
“Whatever the speed at which it seems to flow, time passes. We pass with it and in it. There is a tinge of fatalism about that passage in Virgil’s Georgics: ‘fugit inreparabile tempus,’ ‘irretrievably, time escapes.’ So, time is to be sought in passing, in a passage, a stretch or a stretching that determines its activity as time. We are, all of us, time’s passengers, witnesses to its passing, which is also our own. Time travel in science fiction follows on the heels of time’s passage. As passengers on any means of transport, we are, therefore, reflecting time’s activity. That is why passengerhood gives us a privileged perspective on this philosophical and existential leitmotif.
For millennia, human mobility has structured our thinking of time. Changes of place have been the signs and measures of time, ever since the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey. Even if its shape was circular — the narrative arc bent, the end meeting the beginning — an epic journey defined time-imagination all the way to the 19th century, with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit for its pinnacle. The time of an epic relied on coherent plot development, where the final denouement both overshadowed and retrospectively shed light on the rest of the story. Gilgamesh’s failure to attain immortality, Odysseus’s return home to Ithaca, and Spirit’s reunification with itself in absolute knowing bestowed the ultimate sense on all previous events in their respective stories and made other changes of place and time insubstantial by comparison.
As grand master narratives and traditionally authoritative sources of meaning came under attack in late modernity, and as travels started weaving the social fabric instead of puncturing it, the thinking of time underwent a number of momentous modifications. Transition, transit, and transformation prevailed over the original, more or less static, state and the end result alike. The departure and the destination paled in significance compared to the middle. In keeping with Taoist philosophy and with the old German proverb ‘Der Weg ist das Ziel,’ the path became the goal.”
“Twentieth-century physics faithfully reflects this shift. Quantum mechanics elucidates the interference of the observer with the observed, the act of observation meddling with the reality it registers. In Einstein’s general theory of relativity, gravity bends time (or, more accurately, the spacetime field around an object); in his special theory of relativity, time slows down or accelerates depending on how fast you travel in relation to something else. An emphasis on observation at the quantum level and on relation in relativity is the emphasis on that which is in-between two or more elements, in contrast to free-standing, independent, autonomous objects and subjects. By the same logic, the temporal crux of passengerhood is the perceived and measurable duration in a passage between places (and between times — especially, of departure and arrival) that is not subject to the purpose-driven, goal-oriented concerns of a journey, a trip, or traveling. It is as if, in the time of passengers, time came into its own precisely by refusing to come into its own, by refusing to be reconciled with a higher end that would extinguish its unrest.
To get into this temporal mindset, try examining your life from the perspective of transit and transition periods, instead of departures, arrivals, and phases of staying put. View the places you leave and those that welcome you from the middle of the passages stretching between them, not the other way around. The main events of our lives are also framed in the middle, between further events, their past and future horizons extending all the way to the objective framing of human life between birth and death. Intriguingly, these cardinal points of our existence are inaccessible to our consciousness as a pure beginning and end. The time of our lives passes between two black boxes, two Xs, two vanishing poles: unrepresentable, unreachable. Life is a middle passage without the shores to sail from or to moor at. In a paraphrase of the 17th-century French mathematician, theologian, and father of the first modern form of public transport Blaise Pascal, who, in his turn, paraphrased 15th-century thinker Nicholas of Cusa, life is an infinitely finite sphere, of which the middle is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”
In the margins
“Many firms now run formal employee-recognition initiatives, from rewards programmes to award schemes. Vendors offer clients a variety of services, including internal noticeboards on which colleagues can publicly thank each other for their work and bestow points that can be redeemed for gifts and experiences. The website of one vendor offers managers advice on what to say to employees to make them feel recognised, because absolutely nothing says ‘authenticity’ like a script. (Sample quote: ‘Congratulations on your great victory! Only you could have pulled it off!,’ which sounds like a Hallmark card for Napoleon.)
Industrialising appreciation misses the point completely. Automated birthday and work-anniversary congratulations are about as personal as an invoice. Platforms on which peers publicly recognise the hard work of others are liable to encourage performative displays of praise. That is especially likely if every compliment shows up on an analytics dashboard for the boss; one employee-engagement firm tracks shows of gratitude and breaks these ‘recognition occasions’ into a series of ghastly categories like ‘Owning the Results’ and ‘Building Trust Like a Family.’
Award schemes also require careful handling. They are great if you win and somewhat less motivating if you don’t stand a chance. In one study from 2014, academics looked at the effect of an award programme on Zambian health-care trainees; they found that comparison with others worsened performance, especially for less able workers.
The secret to showing appreciation is that scarcity matters. It should involve effort: a handwritten note is better than an email, which is better than an algorithm. It should feel personal, not part of a scheme cooked up by the human-resources department. And it should be sufficiently rare to register as meaningful; thanking everyone for everything turns gratitude into a commodity. In other words, appreciation is not a big-data project. Individual managers can harness the power of small gestures to make a real difference to their teams. The best thing firms can do is to hire the sort of people who recognise as much.”
From: The power of small gestures, by Bartleby (The Economist)
“Active listening, for [Carl Rogers], was essential to creating the conditions for growth. It was one of the key ingredients in making another person feel less alone, less stuck, and more capable of self-insight.
Rogers held that the basic challenge of listening is this: consciousnesses are isolated from one another, and there are thickets of cognitive noise between them. Cutting through the noise requires effort. Listening well ‘requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us.’ This empathic leap is a real effort. It is much easier to judge another’s point of view, analyse it, categorise it. But to put it on, like a mental costume, is very hard. As a teenager, I was a passionate atheist and a passionate Leftist. I saw things as very simple: all believers are gullible, and all conservatives are psychopaths, or at minimum heartless. I could hold to my Manichean view precisely because I had made no effort to grasp anyone else’s viewpoint.
Another of my old mental blocks, also flagged by Rogers, is the instinct that anyone I’m talking to is likely dumber than me. This arrogance is terrible for any attempt at listening, as Rogers recognises: ‘Until we can demonstrate a spirit which genuinely respects the potential worth of an individual,’ he writes, we won’t be good listeners. Previously, on bad days, I would wait hawk-like for things I could correct or belittle. I would look for clues that this person was wrong, and could be made to feel wrong. But as Rogers writes, to listen well, we ‘must create a climate which is neither critical, evaluative, nor moralising’.
‘Our emotions are often our own worst enemies when we try to become listeners,’ he wrote. In short, a great deal of bad listening comes down to lack of self-control. Other people animate us, associations fly, we are pricked by ideas. (This is why we have built careful social systems around not discussing such things as religion or politics at dinner parties.) When I was 21, if someone suggested that some pop music was pretty good, or capitalism had some redeeming features, I was incapable of not reacting. This made it very hard for me to listen to anyone’s opinion but my own. Which is why, Rogers says, one of the first skills to learn is non-intervention. Patience. ‘To listen to oneself,’ he wrote, ‘is a prerequisite to listening to others.’ Here, the analogy with meditation is clear: don’t chase every thought, don’t react to every internal event, stay centred. Today, in conversation, I try to constantly remind myself: only react, only intervene, when invited or when it will obviously be welcome. This takes practice, possibly endless practice.
And when we do intervene, following Rogers, we must resist the ever-present urge to drag the focus of the conversation back to ourselves. Sociologists call this urge ‘the shift response’. When a friend tells me they’d love to visit Thailand, I must resist the selfish pull to leap in with Oh yeah, Thailand is great, I spent Christmas in Koh Lanta once, did I ever tell you about the Muay Thai class I did? Instead, I must stay with them: where exactly do they want to go, and why? Sociologists call this ‘the support response.’ To listen well is to step back, keep the focus with someone else.”
From: The psychologist Carl Rogers and the art of active listening, by M M Owen (Aeon Magazine)
“For an object that is fundamentally a box, designed to keep things inside it, the shipping container is a remarkable lesson in the uncontainable nature of modern life — the way our choices, like our goods, ramify around the world. The only thing those flat-screen TVs and Garfield telephones and all the other wildly variable contents of lost shipping containers have in common is that, collectively, they make plain the scale of our excess consumption. The real catastrophe is the vast glut of goods we manufacture and ship and purchase and throw away, but even the small fraction of those goods that go missing makes the consequences apparent. Six weeks after the Tokio Express got into trouble at Land’s End, another container ship ran aground sixteen nautical miles away, sending dozens of containers into the sea just off the coast of the Isles of Scilly. Afterward, among the shells and pebbles and dragons, residents and beachcombers kept coming across some of the cargo: a million plastic bags, headed for a supermarket chain in Ireland, bearing the words ‘Help protect the environment.’”
“During World War II, much of Rotterdam’s city center was razed due to a bombing by the [Luftwaffe]. The opportunity for new construction gave architects and urban planners a blank slate to reinvent the neighborhood, whose crowded and impoverished quarters soon gave way to tree-lined avenues and modern high-rises with more than 150 million square feet of flat-topped rooftops. In 2008, the government started offering subsidies if building owners retrofitted properties with green roofs — an incentive that soon gave way to experiments in stormwater management and harnessing solar power.
Now, the city is showing its imagination again by converting roofs into interconnected elevated parks. To access the skyward trail, visitors ascend a neon pink stairway to the top of the Het Nieuwe Instituut Museum, where tours, concerts, and exhibitions are held on a network of orange walkways snaking over such landmarks as the Bijenkorf department store [by Marcel Breuer] and the World Trade Centre plinth, providing views of the bustling Coolsingel corridor below. Called Rotterdam Rooftop Days and designed by Dutch firm MVRDV, the path is an inventive example of adaptive reuse to address environmental issues like heat stress and flooding while providing an outdoor community hub. (Rotterdam is home to more than 650,000 people, and public space is increasingly scarce.)
Rotterdam Rooftop Days is open until June 24 but for locals, the conversation is ongoing. More than 90 percent of the Dutch city lies below sea level, so urban planners are already devising clever solutions for water management like sponge parks and sunken squares. While these interventions have proven effective at diverting stormwater, the city’s footprint offers little room for further expansion. Rooftops, according to local Department of Sustainability worker Paul van Roosmalen, hold the key. ‘If you can do this on a lot of rooftops, you have a lot of small-scale solutions and that would add up to this one big-scale solution.’ That solution may entail green spaces like outdoor fitness machines and cemeteries that venture beyond traditional parks.”
From: A New Elevated Park Offers a Blueprint to Cooling Cities, by Ryan Waddoups (Surface Magazine)
Photography by Ossip van Duivenbode
“Defeat, my Defeat, my solitude and my aloofness;
You are dearer to me than a thousand triumphs,
And sweeter to my heart than all world-glory.
Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,
Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot
And not to be trapped by withering laurels.
And in you I have found aloneness
And the joy of being shunned and scorned.
Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield,
In your eyes I have read
That to be enthroned is to be enslaved,
And to be understood is to be leveled down,
And to be grasped is but to reach one’s fullness
And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed.
Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion,
You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences,
And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings,
And urging of seas,
And of mountains that burn in the night,
And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul.
Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
And we shall be dangerous.”