Perfect uselessness

“You don’t see yet, Genry, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”


“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”

URSULA K. LE GUIN, The Left Hand of Darkness


Galaxies and snail shells

Galaxies and snail shells contain the exact same design and math only because we see them that way. It’s we who create the design we think we see. It’s what we do. I know this better than anyone. I constantly rebind what falls apart. I see, over and over, what people want to do, what they need to do. Bind their thoughts and sensations and share them with others. And so that’s what we all do, over and over again, producing a world, a galaxy, a universe that we think is beyond us.

DAVID BAJO, The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri

The problem with a quantum universe

Every second the Universe divides into possibilities and most of these possibilities never happen. It is not a uni-verse — there is more than one reading. The story won’t stop, can’t stop, it goes on telling itself, waiting for an intervention that changes what will happen next…The problem with a quantum universe, neither random nor determined, is that we who are the intervention don’t know what we are doing.


In Search of a Complete Unified Theory

Now, if you believe that the universe is not arbitrary, but governed by definite laws, you ultimately have to combine the partial theories into a complete unified theory that will describe everything in the universe. But there is a fundamental paradox in the search for such a complete unified theory. The ideas about scientific theories outlined above assume we are rational beings who are free to observe the universe as we want and to draw logical deductions from what we see. In such a scheme it is reasonable to suppose that we might progress ever closer toward the laws that govern the universe. Yet if there really is a complete unified theory, it would also presumably determine our actions. And so the theory itself would determine the outcome of our search for it! And why should it determine that we come to the right conclusions from the evidence? Might it not equally well determine that we draw the wrong conclusion? Or no conclusion at all?

STEPHEN HAWKING, A Briefer History of Time

Of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare

If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power–something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has become autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of the other divine perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom, ill-disposed to reassure thought about the veracity of its distinct ideas. We see something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God. This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law. It is a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death.

QUENTIN MEILLASSOUX: After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency

But the tune stays hidden from him

There have been times when the goal of scientific endeavor was to study the perceptual side of things. We can indeed fix the date of the change from the study of the perceptual side to the study of the functional side with great accuracy. It lies between Kepler and Newton.
Astronomy was originally a science of the perceptual side; it was a matter of finding the design behind the bewildering multitude of stars, a design ordained by God that made it possible for them to move in perfect harmony: on his search for the harmony Kepler found the laws governing the planetary motions. Newton on the other hand we find completely immersed in the functional side of the starry sky, as he formulates the laws of gravity.
Kepler was looking for a design — Newton was looking for a cause for the same phenomenon.
What had happened to cause this revolution? Something fundamentally shattering had happened — God had left the universe.
During the whole of the Middle Ages, God resided over an unshakeable celestial vault, with the fixed stars wielded to its surface, while the planets moved freely in space. Above in Heaven was the kingdom of God where He resided in unimaginable splendor, surrounded by saints and archangels.
Then Giordano Bruno broke the celestial vault and opened a view into infinite space, where the fixed stars also hover in space like luminous islands.
God, who until recently had been enthroned in Heaven, had become invisible. He had left the universe as when we left the room with the bell and closed the door behind us.
In the same way as we leave the bell behind us as a meaningless blob of matter, he had left the stars, that had until then obeyed his will, as accidental accumulations of mass, moving aimlessly around. The design of the world had broken down. Looking for it had become meaningless.
Giordano Bruno had to atone for his blasphemous deed in the year 1600 when he was burned at the stake in Rome. But his deed could not be undone. God himself had left the world.
The consequence of this was that scientists began to deal with the world in the way a deaf person deals with a street organ. The turning of the roller, the vibration of the tongues and the aerial waves, these things he can establish — but the tune stays hidden from him.

JAKOB VON UEXKÜLL, “The new concept of Umwelt: A link between science and the humanities,” Semiotica 134(1/4): 111-123

Don’t make a ship in a bottle

When I was starting out, I’d try to convey everything I knew about a subject in a story, and I ended up spending days or weeks in painful contortions. There isn’t enough room in an article to present a full story. Even a book is not space enough. It’s like trying to build a ship in a bottle. You end up spending all your time squeezing down all the things you’ve learned into miniaturized story bits. And the result will be unreadable.

It took me a long time to learn that all that research is indeed necessary, but only to enable you to figure out the story you want to tell. That story will be a shadow of reality—a low-dimensional representation of it. But it will make sense in the format of a story. It’s hard to take this step, largely because you look at the heap of information you’ve gathered and absorbed, and you can’t bear to abandon any of it. But that’s not being a good writer. That’s being selfish. I wish someone had told me to just let go.

CARL ZIMMER, Carl Zimmer on writing: Don’t make a ship in a bottle


Who Has Never Killed an Hour?

Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI, House of Leaves

From There Comes Torment

…Implicit in the riddle’s form is a promise that the rest of the world resolves just as easily. And so riddles comfort the child’s mind which spins wildly before the onslaught of so much information and so many subsequent questions.

The adult world, however, produces riddles of a different variety. They do not have answers and are often called enigmas or paradoxes. Still the old hint of the riddles form corrupts these questions by re-echoing the most fundamental lesson: there must be an answer. From there comes torment.

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI, House of Leaves

No One Has Any Reason to Lie

But all philosophical question are ultimately like this – by necessity, they deal with hypotheticals that are unfeasible. Real-world problems are inevitably too unique and too situational; people will always see any real-world problem through the prism of their own personal experience. The only massive ideas everyone can discuss rationally are big ideas that don’t specifically apply to anyone, which is why a debate over the ethics of time travel is worthwhile: No one has any personal investment whatsoever. It’s only theoretical. Which means no one has any reason to lie.

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN, “Tomorrow Rarely Knows”, Eating the Dinosaur