Monday, July 6, 2009

The Abstract Embodied: Part I

We separate and compartmentalize the imaginative life of our species and in doing so flatten and reduce ourselves. We restrict our understanding of history and the full field of possibilities into which we might move. Our grandest conceptions of space, time, cosmology and life live separately from the day to day truck of commerce. There is the sacred and then there is the profane. They are, we think, separate and distinct. In making that distinction we cleave the world into two less-than-halves and miss what is most remarkable about being human.

The profane emerges from the sacred as well as the other way around. The abstract and the concrete support each other and can not be encountered separately.

In working on the research for my next book I have been reading Peter Galison's Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps: Empires of Time and I would like to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the overlap between social and scientific history. Galison has taken great pains to show how the most arcane of scientific theories - Einstein's relativity - did not spring from a rarefied and disconnected aether of abstract thought. Instead it emerged in a context where light signal travel times and the meaning of simultaneity were at the very center of the culture's deepest concerns.

The world of the late 1800s was crisscrossed with thousands of miles of telegraph cable and railroad lines. It was a world that was shrinking far faster than our digitized globe. For all of human history few people traveled faster than 40 miles an hour (a galloping horse) unless they were falling from a cliff. Suddenly train lines where whisking people from one city to another at sustained speeds of 75 mph or more. Even more astonishing telegraph cables reaching from Denver to Dakar to Peru to Paris allowed news to flash instantaneously across continents and oceans. For the first time in human history the meaning of "at the same time" had an import and an ambiguity to it that had never existed before. If it was 10:00 am now here in Rochester, what time was it in London?

Empires depended on the answer to this question. The determination of longitude, established by a comparison of local time with the time at a distant standard meridian could mean the difference of miles between contested boundaries. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Kings cared about simultaneity.

Into this fray comes young Albert Einstein - patent clerk/physics student - ready to take on the physics of electromagnetism, moving bodies, time and simultaneity. What matters for this discussion is the simple fact that he did not dream up this issue on his own. He did not arrive there by simply wondering in the realms of pure thought. He did nothe did not end up at his questions alone and he did not end up there by accident. The entire world was waiting for him.

To be continued...


  1. Amen brother!

    I whole heartedly agree with the integration of sacred and profane. The question I'm thinking about in the moment here, is what is sacredness?

    In my own work, I'm thinking about things that I first encountered in religion in a new context outside of religion. So when an idea like sacred is born in a religious context, what does it become outside that context? Further in this question is to understand that in the human era before Newton, religion contained a technology component; rituals were devised to effect the prime mover. After Newton, technology is aimed at the non-personal physical forces.

    What I'm getting at, is that sacredness was part of an effective "technology". In our era, when sacredness is no longer a means to an end, what does sacred mean?

  2. Adam you say "the abstract and the concrete support each other and cannot be encountered separately"

    If there is one thing that characterises the present age of narrow specialisation it is exactly this problem. The depth and breadth of present knowledge confines us to narrow points of view and our own specialisation becomes the real world while all else is peripheral. Our necessary preoccupation with the vast body of detail has imprisoned our minds.

    This is the result in part of our inability to comprehend more that a portion of the large body of accumulated knowledge, in part because our educational systems have become increasingly specialised, in part because the success of science is crowding out other points of view and in part because broad scholarship is no longer valued as the epitome of an accomplished person.

    The value of the broad scholarship of the past was that it freed the mind to soar and swoop as an eagle does. Swooping one moment to seize the detail, soaring the next to view grand vistas and traverse vast landscapes of knowledge. It is this quality of the mind, to soar and swoop effortlessly, as the eagle does, that allows us to integrate the abstract and the concrete and to see new patterns emerge.

    And it just so happens that Sean has recently posted the question "Does philosophy make you a better scientist?" on Cosmic Variance. That it was necessary to ask the question illustrates the problem perfectly. Many of the comments reinforce the point even more.

  3. @mike. Eliade said somewhere that "In the end the sacred is a power." I think this is really the crux of the biscut. In early cultures the deeply felt sense that the world was alive, that the inescable presence of things, pointed towards some ineffiable character of life, was taken as a kind of power. We may be past turning this power into a being or set of beings with human characteristics and motives but we can still apprecitae its conenction to Being with that all important capital "B". Its power is, in a sense, our power. the power to apprehend and create in responce.

  4. @Occasional - "Our necessary preoccupation with the vast body of detail has imprisoned our minds."

    Yes, separating detail from the broad perspective that sets us into context is ultimately what makes us, and our history, so fascinating. We live in a age of experts where knowledge gets parsed into arenas of comptetance. Step outside that ever tightening ring and one becomes a "diletante" (a word which I am told originally meant "lover of knowledge"). What is so dangerous about this narrowing is it is exactly the opposite of what is needed so desperately at the crossroads we face. The Long Emergency will demand generalists who also have specialized knowledge.

  5. @Occasional and Adam- I like the way you guys are talking about specialization. I'm grateful for the knowledge developed by people willing to specialize; but when a specialty takes on the role of a world, it becomes ironically, a form of reductionist being doesn't it? A world comprised in the totality of one's specialty can be held in one's hand: here management takes the place of being alive.

    Here is where I would distinguish wisdom from knowledge. We need both, but wisdom is something else from knowledge; I wonder if we could think of wisdom as a search for context; and by context we can think of as the whole that ultimately organizes the constituant parts?

    any thoughts?

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