Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dawkins and Weinberg

A very interesting conversation about the origin of the universe, and the mysteries of life. I particularly appreciated this statement by Weinberg:

"I think essentially the position of human beings is a tragic one. And the more we understand, the more clearly tragic it do we live with this tragedy... well, Shakespeare showed us that one way of living with tragedy is to mix it in with comedy."
-Stephen Weinberg

I've found it to be true. And it scares me to think that it becomes more tragic with understanding, and how much older and smarter Weinberg is.

For me in recent years, the Ken Burns documentaries have delved a sense of the tragic deep into my understanding of the human experience. The Civil War and his WWII documentaries give us a glimpse of the completely unimaginable horrifying acts that mankind has regularly performed on itself ever since that point in history where the the first shoulder articulation could swing a weighted object quickly. We use concepts of "heroism" to provide some sort of sugar coating to the meaningless.

And now in Iraq you have a situation like that of Vietnam, where nobody can even pinpoint the exact purpose of the sacrifice, so the purpose becomes the exaltation of bravery and patriotism itself. But the troops coming home with PTSD know better than to think that the contrived narratives developed around Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman are more than stories the non-combatants need to justify a war whose purpose nobody can put a finger on with a straight face.

And what of the religionists who continue to deny the stunning realities science has discovered and cemented as fact? It is a case where everyone can plainly see that they have lost the argument but themselves. Why do we still have to fight over an argument we have already won as decisively as can be? The answer surely is tied up with Weinberg's observation- "the more we understand the more clearly tragic it is".

Who wants to understand, when understanding is tragic?


CS in New Jersey said...

This gave me a lot to think about. Listening to Weinberg was like listening to my father when I was growing up--he too was a physicist. I think a lot of what motivates people in the face of the inevitable tragedies of our respective existences is a yearning for what we hope will be a satisfying distraction, whether we realize it or not. There is no question that comedy has been used in literature and in our day-to-day lives as a powerful distractor from the miseries we all face. Religion provides the ultimate distraction because for those who buy into it, it promises to deny the ultimate tragedy altogether. Many scientists (and especially theorhetical physicists like my father was) also are motivated by a desire for distraction I think. Some of them spend their lives attempting to "understand" and explain the origins of the universe. I think that while there is absolutely a lot to be gained from such knowledge in general, I think that a strong motivating force behind the pursuit for the acquistion of this knowledge is that it gives the scientist a sort of sense of power or control over it in a way. But in the end, this too serves as a distraction. The truth is we're all doomed. No matter how it all started, it's all going to end at some finite time for each and every one of us. And the less we think about/ acknowledge it on a personal level, the happier we seem to be.

Aaron said...

Oh you're just bitter.

Lol! Just kidding. But that would be the instant reaction if you were to say this to anyone in public. They would suggest you were bitter or depressed. Only philosophers and artists can get away publicly with telling the truth.

I totally agree. The distraction is mandatory for happiness. Our brains are not designed for better ultimate truth detection. Top cognitive scientists believe that depression is caused when the self-deception mechanisms of the brain break down. Melancholy people have more accurate perceptions of what others think about them according to studies. We can't handle the truth, so why do we seek it?

Religion and science are on the same coin. Religion seeks to invent a spiritual realm without good evidence, and science seeks either to create one from scratch or hopes to discover something someday which validates some spiritual inclination or provides a mystical sense of awe.

Normal people live in a fantasy world. And those who are melancholy are encouraged to try it too.