"A Longing for Truth and Meaning"

by Alan Hirshfeld -- Review of
Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,
by Alan Lightman

"Books," The Wall Street Journal, April 7-8, 2018, C7

Now beauty [], as we said, shone bright among those visions, and in this world below we apprehend it through the clearest of our senses, clear and resplendent. For sight [] is the keenest of the physical senses [, singlular ], though wisdom [] is not seen by it -- how terrible [] would be our love [] for it, if such a clear image [] of wisdom were granted as would come through sight -- and the same is true of the other beloved [, singlular ] objects; but beauty alone has this privilege [], to be most clearly shown [] and most lovely [] of them all.

Plato, Phaedrus, 250D [R. Hackford, Plato's Phaedrus, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1952, p. 93, translation modified; Greek text, the Loeb Classical Library, Euthryphro Apology Crito Phaedo Phaedrus, Harvard University Press, 1914-1966, p. 485]


Zwei Dinge erfüllen das Gemüt mit immer neuer and zunehmenden Bewunderung und Ehrfurcht, je öfter und anhaltender sich das Nachdenken damit beschäftigt:  Der bestirnte Himmel über mir, und das moralische Gesetz in mir.

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them:  the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason [Lewis White Beck translation, A Liberal Arts Press Book, Bobbs-Merrill, 1956, p.166]; Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, A 289 [Kritik der praktischen Vernunft, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Herausgaben von Wilhelm Weischedel, Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Erste Auflage, 1974, 1956, p.300], emphasis in original, color added.


Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.

Sherlock Holmes [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories of Sherlock Holmes, "The Naval Treaty," 1892]


"I want to know, for example, why beauty exists," she [Gabrielle] said, "why nature continues to contrive it, and what is the link between the life of a tree and its beauty, and what connects the mere existence of the sea or a lightning storm with the feelings these things inspire in us? If God does not exist, if these things are not unified into one metaphorical system, then why do they retain for us such symbolic power?..."

Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat [1985]


The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves....

Cassius, Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, Act I, Scene ii, 140-141, color added.




Numquid resina non est in Galaad?
Is there no balm in Gilead?

Jeremiah 8:22

Here we learn about a book, with reflections on the meaning of life, by an astrophysicist at Harvard, Alan Lightman. His book is reviewed by Alan Hirshfeld, a physicist at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. So this is physics reviewing physics and, we might end up thinking -- since the issue is metaphysics, meaning, axiology, and religion -- that it is something rather like the blind leading the blind.

Lightman's book might bring to mind the fictional MIT astrophysicist in the movie Knowing. Lightman's circumstances are more prosaic, and his conclusions less surprising and dramatic. Knowing was also about the meaning of life, but with a science fiction resolution that left it ambiguous whether religion or just alien super-science was even involved. We have no such ambiguity here, where Hirshfeld says of Lightman:

Mr. Lightman's cognitive turmoil is summed up in a reflection on the death of his parents, in which he reluctantly accepts the "impossible truth" that they no longer exist. "I wish I believed," he adds poignantly.

In his review, Hirshfeld goes two long paragraphs before even mentioning Lightman. But he does begin with something that Lighman, and many others, does, namely, looking up at the sky. There are a lot of stars up there. The city dweller may not have a clue. But, travel to the mountains or desert, with a dark sky, and the impression you get can be astounding and overwhelming. I had no idea. The heavens hold beauty, sublimity, and mystery beyond the comprehension of the modern, as it was of the ancient, world; yet as we know better what we are looking at, some of the mystery drains away, or is demystified, while the urban sky devastates much of the beauty and sublimity.

There is also, as Hirshfeld says, "its utter silence." When the gods spoke, the heavens were not quite so silent, or did not seem to be. Now, since people like Hirshfeld and Lightman believe in no gods, the silence of the heavens has a particularly modern sting. Sitting at our radio telescopes, we may keep asking, "Where is everyone?" Are all those UFO's really ET just messing with us? Where is the Pan-Galactic 11 O'Clock News? Nothing.... And Alien doesn't make it look so appealing anyway.

Hirshfeld doesn't get into that. Instead, we find Lightman wandering around Pole Island, Maine, where he seems to visit or vacation, evidently with a very dark sky. The kind sailors see far from land. This vision moved Kant, as above, to his most poetic. And beauty was for Plato, as above, a clue to higher realities. Hirshfeld and Lightman can only wish.

Here is a book in which even a colonoscopy becomes grist for the philosophical mill: "I am just material stuff," Mr. Lightman informs us as a videocam spelunks through his innards, but he hedges: "I know this intellectually, yet I recoil from the idea."

So, like the squire in The Seventh Seal, Lightman protests. But as with any properly Existentialist protest, it doesn't make any objective difference. The beauty of the heavens is not a Platonic clue, and the "admiration and awe" it inspires are not matched, as in Kant, by anything within, let alone the Moral Law. If what Lightman has is a "thirst for spiritual transcendence," as Hirshfeld says, then he has passed by all the available exits from the materalist throughway and continues on to the inevitable nihilism and despair -- or hedonism, if the final reference to Peggy Lee dancing is any indication.

But here we have had our own clue. "I am just material stuff." This is something that astonishes me about, well, these kind of people. "Just"? Don't these physicists know about the devastation that their own science has wrecked on "just material stuff"? If one is going to be a materialist, one ought to pay some kind of attention to the shambles that matter has become in science itself, before we even get to metaphysics.

In 1911 Ernest Rutherford discovered that atoms were mostly empty space. Later, Paul Dirac postulated that fundamental particles, like electrons (and later quarks) were point particles, which take up no space (or charged particles would explode). Thus, matter is not mostly empty space, it is entirely empty space. No Democritean billiard balls. Even John Locke thought that the "solidity" of matter was something an Empricist could endorse. And we know how the British Empiricists loved their billiards.

The space is taken up, to be sure, by fields; but fields, as presently understood (or misunderstood), are either exchanges of virtual particles, which don't really exist (they don't have real mass or energy), or they are the curvature of space itself (after Einstein), which many in science and philosophy of science, endorsing Leinbiz, don't believe exists (or are confused). It is enough to properly dismay the heart of any materialist.

And that is only the beginning. Hirshfeld and Lightman should know what Einstein didn't like about quantum mechanics. Things exist one way when you look at them (particles) and another way when you don't look at them (waves). Whether people happen to credit Einstein or not, everyone has been trying to wiggle out of this ever since. And the only philosophical system that has ever provided a comparable and conformable dualism for anything like this is that of Immanuel Kant -- hence my treatment of Kantian Quantum Mechanics. Yet writers like Hirshfeld and Lightman, or even Roger Penrose, seem to lack the philosophical background, or perhaps even the stomach, to face the proper questions and deal with them.

So Hirshfeld doesn't address the entanglement of consciousness with physics. One comes away, perhaps from Lightman's book also, with the idea that the "material stuff" of modern physics contains nothing to disturb the solid Democritean. The dismay that Lightman expresses that "I am just material stuff" implies that he knows just what "material stuff" is. It all sounds nice and self-evident. "The science is settled." Yet we get no clue from Hirshfeld's review that either of them, incredibly, even know what matter looks like in modern physics, their own field of study. The science is most unsettled, and unsettling. The "impossible truth" is that maybe they don't know what they are talking about. Do they ever even ask themselves, "What, after all, is matter?"

Yet the materialist conclusions are relentless:

"Self," he writes, "is the name we give to the mental sensations of certain electrical and chemical flows in our neurons."

And Lightman knows this, how? By observing the neurons as they exist apart from phenomenal objects in our representation? But he ought to know that he is not doing that. And he is certainly not doing it through introspection, where no amount of inner reflection reveals neurons or "electrical and chemical flows." This is an inference, one that eliminates our entire inner life which, after all, is all that he is really familiar with. One must be a very stolid behaviorist as well as materialist to talk like that.

Contemplating his own end, he takes solace in knowing that some of the atoms he has shed might linger on Pole Island for a thousand years.

Again, after the reductionism of collapsing his whole existence into "atoms," how does he know that these will "linger" anywhere? Oh, there is a law of physics. The conservation of mass. And this law is enforced by what? or who? Gremlins? The God of Abraham and Issac? The eternal Buddha-dharma? Isn't this all taking something for granted? There are rigorous laws of nature but not, after all, the consciousness with which he is directly acquainted, or through which the laws of nature are discerned?

Thus, according to Mr. Lightman, a precipice looms for each of us: an eventual plunge into nonexistence.

Not however, according to Krishna, who says , "The unreal never is," , "the real never is not." However, perhaps we cannot listen to Krishna:

A depressing prospect, for sure, yet the inevitable judgment of those for whom religious or spiritual alternatives carry no resonance.

Krishna asserts that non-existence is impossible, in the course of assuring Arjuna that no one is really going to die in the battle of Kurukshetra; but perhaps he represents only one of the "religious or spiritual alternatives" which do not resonate with rational scientists like Hirshfeld and Lightman (blind to any exit to transcendence).

Yet the principle of the conservation of mass, or mass-energy, also asserts that non-existence is impossible. And Hirshfeld and Lightman know that there are many conservation laws in physics. It is just that, despite the modern entanglement of consciousness with physics, they are still Democritean reductionists. And what is this based on? In fact, where have these conservation laws come from, setting aside the problem of what enforces the laws of nature? The principle of ex nihilo, nihil fit, "From nothing comes nothing," itself has a history.

In Parmenides we have no religious or spiritual authority, only reasoning. And the reasoning is that the concept of "non-existence" is self-contradictory. The argument is that Being cannot become Nothing, because to think of something, it must be something, and Nothing, by definition, is not something. So there is no reality there to conceive. Neither Being, nor anything else, can become Nothing. Parmenides sums this up with the simple principle, , "It is, or it is not":

But it has surely been decided, as it must be, to leave alone the one way as unthinkable and nameless (for it is no true way), and that the other is real and true. How could what is thereafter perish? and how could it come into being? For if it comes to be, it is not, and likewise if it is going to be. So coming into being is extinguished and perishing unimaginable. [Fragment 8, translated by G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge, 1957, p.273]

Of course, as Robert Heinlein says, if you give a philosopher enough paper, and he can prove anything. Perhaps this is what Parmenides has done. Yet for centuries, the very idea that matter could not just become nothing rested on this reasoning. The only real dissent was over the reality of empty space -- the vacuum -- which was affirmed by Democritus. Perhaps this seems obvious now. Of course there's a vacuum. Just pump out the air. And philosophers of science say that Leibniz refuted Newton, which means that space doesn't exist. Oh. Uh, oh. That's not quite the same thing. There is a vacuum, but it is real and there is stuff in it. A quantum flux of virtual particles. Or the curvature of space-time. Something. Space does exist. Yes, it's something. But then something is not nothing, is it? Is Parmenides laughing back there, somewhere?

But this doesn't mean that consciousness exists. Or does it? It certainly did for Leibniz, following Descartes and Spinoza. What Hirshfeld and Lightman seem entirely unaware of is the whole problematic of Modern Philosophy, from Descartes, to Berkeley, to Hume, to Kant, that we are not, through perception, directly acquainted with external material substances. We possess something presumably caused by them, or by, well, something. Since the possibility here is that material substance doesn't even exist, it is not surprising that Leibniz, Berkeley, and Hegel all concluded that it doesn't. And while Hume merely adopted a Skeptical agnosticism, he extended that to introspective objects also. There is no more reason to believe in souls than in matter. As Bertrand Russell joked (one of the few things he was good for), what Hume meant was, "No matter; never mind."

This got Kant's attention. After all, the only argument that can truly discredit Solipsism, that I am the only thing that exists, is that knowledge of my self and my existence is actually no better than my knowledge of external objects and external existence. I have recast this as Ontological Undecidability. Phenomenal objects and the phenomenal self are both given with the same force and in the same way. Indeed, introspection seems subsequent to, and dependant on, the perception of the external world. So, although Descartes said that the mind is better known than the body, the Buddha more acutely said, "But it were better, O priests, if the ignorant, unconverted man regarded the body which is composed of the four elements as an Ego, rather than the mind." The Buddhist analysis of experience and of self is not much different from Hume's, with the Buddha saying, "But that, O priests, which is called mind, intellect, consciousness, keeps up an incessant round by day and by night of perishing as one thing and springing up as another."

In Modern Philosophy, the most popular approach is the Skepticism or agnosticism of Hume, so that Roger Scruton thinks that the Wittgenstein's rejection of metaphysics resolves all of the Cartesian philosophical problems. This is, of course, a far cry from the complacent epistemic certainty with which Hirshfeld and Lightman rely on materialism. It is also a long way from the goals and program of Immanuel Kant, which Scruton has confused with Hegel and Wittgenstein. Das moralische Gesetz in mir, "the Moral Law within me," tells the tale and makes all the difference. There is no such thing for Wittgenstein; it is heteronomicly external for Hegel; and it is ambiguously internal or external for Hume.

Thus, anyone with a "thirst for transcendence" might be well advised to pay more attention to Kant. After all, the dilemmas of Hirshfeld and Lightman seem to rely on the idea of "transcendence" as we would find it in Plato or in Christian theology. The transcedent realm there is a cosmologically external, independent and supernatural place. Al-Ghazâlî (1059-1111), endorsing such absolute transcendence and the separateness of God, condemned the (Neoplatonic) philosophers for holding that the world was somehow part of God and had not been created by him in time. But transcendence in Kant is no more than things-in-themselves, which means a side of the objects that we see now, in so far as they exist independently of us, something with which physicists should be acutely aware, since they must make a distinction between appearance and reality as sharp as anything that has ever seen made. To the senses, matter bears no resemblance to its description in physics.

While Kant abandoned aesthetic realism for moralism, and his clue to transcendence was only the "Moral Law within," otherwise only noting, like Hirshfeld and Lightman, the "starry heavens," Plato's own remarks were in a different context. Plato's clue of beauty was that of the physical human beloved, which in his day mainly meant a young man, -- although the Greeks soon got around to the idea that a woman was beautiful also, -- something that had never been missing in descriptions of goddesses, whose faces, eyes, necks, breasts, and posteriors were often matters of note. This physical beauty was then, in Plato's view, supposed to carry the mind to higher things, but there is no doubt that it is there at the material level.

An intriguing case is the painting by Maxfield Parrish above, Stars, which combines the topics I am considering, of the beauty of the heavens with the beauty of women. But the nude model for the figure there was Parrish's own lovely and nubile daughter Jean, which in this day and age may leave one wondering.

The beauty of physical things actually poses more of a problem for Plato that it would for Kant. All that Plato could say is that physical objects "participate" in the Form of Beauty, . This is left unexplained, and it depends on the whole metaphysics of how it is that the World of Forms gives its reality and its character to the World of Becoming, which is not something Plato ever clarifies very much. The Demiurge of the Timaeus accomplishes this by a sort of handicraft, which was more in line with the Christian than with the Neoplatonic interpretation of his metaphysics.

Since the transcendent is, ontologically, immanent in Kant's phenomenal objects, beauty may shine right through in ordinary perception, which is how we and Plato tend to perceive it. However, epistemologically, and perhaps tempermentally, Kant is not set up to countenance and allow this. All we perceive are what the Positivists would call "sense data," whose aesthetic value is a matter of our reaction to it. And what in it is then going to ground or determine, or influence in any way, that reaction? Since Aristotle actually thought that self-evidence was the result of long study by way of induction, this rather compromises the immediacy of even his own intuitionism.

A combination of Friesian and Platonic epistemology helps out. Fries and Nelson were limited by the Kantian idea that rational knowledge comes from the internal "faculty of reason." With the theory of non-intuitive immediate knowledge, however, we can treat aesthetic perception the same way that the Neoplatonists would have employed their intuitionism. In other words, the intuition that Aristotle or the Neopalonists would have allowed to us in real time, and Plato would have imagined in the "interim state," between lives, can be accepted as presesent right now as long as it is actually non-intuitive (nicht-anschauliche). Thus, we have the immediacy of intuition, but without immediate awareness or self-evidence.

This is especially useful with aesthetic value. Taste differs, and beauty cannot be systematized like mathematics or anything else amenable to logical systemization. But beauty is not arbitrary either. Beethoven's 3rd Symphony, a masterpiece if ever there was one, nevertheless was quite long in relation to the tradition of earlier symphonies, even Beethoven's own. Thus, in the middle of the performance, an audience member is reported to have shouted, "I would pay another kreuzer [the Austrian penny] if only it would end!" A Philistine, perhaps; but some art is universally condemned, initially, only to slowly grow into immortality. Taste can be refined, and critiqued. Art, theater, music, and movie critics abound; they always find something to talk about; and audiences often want some clue about the quality of what they may spend their time and money to see or hear. But there is often dissent about even the best, or worse, art. So in French one says, "Chacun à son goût," "Each to his own taste."

Realizing his growing deafness, Beethoven (1770-1827) determined to continue with life and composing in spite of it. So some of the greatest music ever written was created by a man who could not actually hear it. Dying in only his 57th year, Beethoven, lying on his death bed, is then supposed to have shaken his fist at the heavens. One imagines a thunderstorm going on at the time. Which brings me back to Hirshfeld and Lightman. Their philosophy of atoms and the void seems to leave them, or certainly at least Lightman, dispirited; and it is hard to imagine enough passion there to shake a fist at anything, let alone in a way to challenge the gods, fate, or whatever Beethoven may have had in mind. Beethoven was a volcano of creativity, whose explosive flow and exuberance carried over into the rest of his life, with his restlessness preventing him from "settling down" in very conventional ways -- not like J.S. Bach (1685-1750), with his large family, and longer life, who may have been even more creative.

With a tour of some of the philosophical issues there, the bleak vision of Hirshfeld and Lightman stands in stark contrast. The poverty of their resources, and the naiveté of their materialism, is distressing and painful. If philosophy were doing its job these days, and had not neutered itself in its own nihilistic fashions, of benefit only to academic rent-seekers, Hirshfeld and Lightman might not be left to stew in their own misinformation and confusion. Yes, my physicist friends, there is a Balm in Gilead, and you don't even need "institutionalized religion" to start getting to it.

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