Opinion

Emanuel Derman

An eagerness to impart unnecessary information

By Emanuel Derman
September 14, 2012

I find myself increasingly in irritated disagreement with the many neuroscientists and evangelically professional atheists who think that science is everything, that matter is all we have, and that photographic images of chemicals glowing in the brain are equivalent to thoughts and feelings. (I have no problem with their simply disbelieving in God.)

I grew up a rationalist. My introduction to the supposedly spiritual was in synagogue and school, but it was a pro forma introduction, tales and laws and recitations but no discussion of the perception of God. Nothing about the sort of experience Aldous Huxley wrote about in The Perennial Philosophy.

While in Oxford as a postdoc, some several-years-old advice to read Rudolf Steiner, given to me in a time of trouble, popped into my head again when I passed a poky little anthroposophical bookstore. I purchased an English-language copy of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds.

There was no way I could make my way though the entire book, which was somewhat turgid, but a few sentences set off internal reverberations.

The Mystic, the Gnostic, the Theosophist, have always spoken of a world of the soul and a world of spirit which are just as real to them as the world we can see with physical eyes and touch with physical hands.

And, later in the book, a prescription for spiritual training:

Other traits which have to be combated as well as anger and irritability are timidity, superstition, prejudice, vanity and ambition, curiosity, eagerness to impart unnecessary information …

That latter phrase – eagerness to impart unnecessary information –  hit home. I couldn’t have phrased my tendency better myself.

Mystics, Gnostics and Theosophists sound corny and stupid. But that evening in 1975, the idea that a mental world existed as a primitive rather than a derivative resonated with me, and so I was willing to cut Steiner some slack.

I never became an Anthroposophist, but some of those perceptions still carry weight with me. Years later, when I read Spinoza’s Ethics, I came across a version of the same idea. Mind and matter, according to Spinoza, are simultaneous attributes of one underlying Substance. Or, in modern terms, mind is not an epiphenomenon of matter nor is matter an epiphenomenon of mind. Neurophysiology doesn’t explain psychology, and psychology doesn’t replace neurophysiology. Spirit co-exists with matter; spirit is an element, not a compound.

Another Steiner sentence rung a bell too:

In all its phenomena the outer world is filled with divine splendor, but first we must have experienced the Divine within ourselves if we are to discover it in the surrounding world.

Wonder, wrote Spinoza, is “the conception of anything, wherein the mind comes to a stand, because the particular concept in question has no connection with other concepts.” Wonder comes from mystery. What bothers me about reductionists is precisely their lack of a sense of mystery.

In a 1988 talk Saul Bellow said:

The philosopher Morris R. Cohen was once asked by a student, “Professor, how do I know that I exist?”

“So?” Cohen replied. “And who is esking?” (sic)

Thanks to Professor Cohen I feel that I stand on firmer ground, and can do what I have done all my life: i.e., to fall back instinctively on my first consciousness, which has always seemed to me to be most real and easily accessible. For people who have no access to any such core consciousness, no mysteries exist. … Facts, however, must be respected, and the fact is that for reasons I can’t explain, my own first consciousness has had a long unbroken history. … All I can say is that it is a fact and I wonder why anyone should feel it necessary to put its reality in doubt. But our meddling mental world puts all such realities in doubt. This world of truly modern, educated, advanced consciousness suspects the core consciousness that I take to be a fact of being inauthentic and probably delusive.

I’ve come to believe that everything in the world is secondary to an unquestioned and unquestionable personal existence. The “existence” we speculate about depends on our existence. We are trapped (and liberated) by our consciousness. As Merleau Ponty wrote:

We must not, therefore, wonder whether we really perceive a world, we must instead say: The world is what we perceive … For insofar as we talk about illusion, it is because we have identified illusion, and have done so solely in the light of some perception which at the same time gave assurance of its own truth.

___

There are multiple ways of knowing the world, among them experience, heuristics, models, theories and intuition. The highest endeavor of the mind, according to Spinoza, is to understand things by intuition. Einstein, in a speech honoring Max Planck, the founder of the quantum, wrote of nature’s principles: There is no logical path to these laws; only a sympathetic understanding of experience can reach them. Intuition is precisely a sympathetic understanding of the other, a mode of merging the understander and the understood.

And where can you get intuition?

Wrote Steiner:

Reverence awakens a power of sympathy in the soul through which we draw towards us qualities in the beings around us, qualities which would otherwise remain concealed.

If I encounter a human being and blame him for his weaknesses, I rob myself of the power of higher knowledge; but if I try to enter lovingly into his qualities, I muster this power. 

One must, at times, silence not only all intellectual judgement in listening to people, but also all feelings of displeasure, denial or agreement. When you can listen without criticism, even to apparently ridiculous stuff, you can (perhaps) learn to merge into the being of another person. That isn’t easy.

Given the choice of additional scientific knowledge or intuition, I choose intuition. I want a sympathetic understanding of the world. Meanwhile though, I still haven’t overcome my eagerness to impart unnecessary information.

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