Monday, November 8, 2010

Mind-shaped world

London's (or rather, England's) National Theatre took a cue from the Metropolitan Opera a couple of years ago and began a series of "live" high-definition broadcasts of selected shows from its season. The quotations wouldn't be there if we lived in New York, where audiences really do see shows in the moment they're being performed, but here we watch them "live." A couple of non-NT shows have made it onto this year's bill, and last night Peter and I joined two or three hundred other people at Portland's World Trade Center (still standing, but not so tall as the "real" but absent WTC) for a pre-recorded performance of A Disappearing Number by the group that used to be known as Théatre de Complicité (sorry, can't find the hat for the a) but now goes more simply by Complicite. Their work tends to the densely imagistic, cerebral, and fractured-- they don't disdain story, but they find other, unexpected paths to empathic connection. I'd seen their Noise of Time nine years ago in London and found it more intriguing than moving, but A Disappearing Number makes excellent use of their intellectual and emotional agility, as they leap nimbly from the abstract to the personal and back again.

The play weaves a fictional contemporary romance of the more or less conventional sort with the true (or at least non-fictional) romance of minds that took place between two mathematicians in the early twentieth century, Srinivasa Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy. The latter story gets unfortunately short shrift, but is implicitly honored in Complicite's romance with "maths." Fictions about mathematical and scientific genius usually have the quality of a trip to the zoo-- they invite an audience to peer through steel bars or scratched plexiglass at the strange creatures trapped within. Proof is a case in point, also A Beautiful Mind (though the book makes a more capacious cage than the film). In contrast, Complicite manages ingeniously to communicate something of the flavor of the genius itself, of the beauty that lights a mind like Ramanujan's, alien as it might at first appear.

Even in that last sentence, I have bumped inadvertently against the subject I want to address here. Late in the play, a contemporary mathematician tries to explain to her exasperated husband how it is that math is more real to her than the life they (sort of) share. She quotes Hardy from A Mathematician's Apology: "A mathematician is working with his own mathematical reality. 317 is prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped in one way rather than another, but because it is so, because mathematical reality is built that way." The line hit a nerve with me, and I misremembered it later without Hardy's qualifications: "317 is prime, not because we think so, or because our minds are shaped one way rather than another, but because it is so, because reality is built that way." I've been getting impatient of late with people I might have considered intellectual kin, all the "bright" atheists who mock religious metaphysics but endow human reason with a numinous glow.

I hope that everything I write here will attest to my lifelong affection for empirically grounded reason. Math? Science? I'm a fan of both. It's just that hubris makes me itchy, whatever its source. My admiration for the scientific method is partly inspired by its implicit modesty, but that modesty goes missing sometimes when its practitioners champion themselves as the lonely votaries of Truth. Meanwhile, those who immerse themselves in "pure" math and logic (Plato's great-grandkids) don't dirty their hands with empirical observation, and their claims on Truth can be still more overweening.

I'm not a fan of the radical skepticism that permeates the "postmodern" worldview, which spirals out into an infinity of dead ends: I know you think so, but what do I? I think the search for common insight, common knowledge is possibly worthwhile and anyway much more enlivening than a proliferation of solitary sandboxes. And yet. The temptation to overreach is strong. I suppose I am a child of Kant, in the sense that I believe every description of the world is necessarily a description of the self. Empirical investigation is constrained not only by our specific and limited senses but by (un)certain a priori structures and biases that are more or less particular to us as different species of animal and different species of human. Not least of these is the bias toward meaning itself: our desire to make sense of what we perceive drives us to see relationships (e.g. of similarity, of coincidence, of cause and effect) where none may essentially exist, and it operates for the most part "in secret," below the level of conscious thought.

The dialogue between nature and nurture begins too early to allow us ever to untangle it completely (generations before an individual's conception, as recent epigenetic research has demonstrated). However, we don't need to arrive at any definitive account of what or how much is pre-written on the slate to recognize that the slate has a given shape and a surface that can only be marked in given ways (a blackboard likes chalk as paper likes a pen). Think of the senses we are missing, and those we possess in only stunted form. How would our notions of "objective observation" be altered if we could more directly perceive magnetic fields like a pigeon, shapes and speed like a bat, scents like a dog?

Yes, we have extended technology into many areas of our sensual blindness, but how much is lost in translation? If I see a sound's echo as a tight burst of peaks and valleys on a scrawled page, and learn to recognize its distinct pattern, is my apprehension of reality expanded to the same degree as if I had acquired the skill of echolocation? If a blind person scores perfectly when I test her knowledge of Newtonian optics ("420 nanometers?" "Violet?" "Yes!"), will I congratulate her and hand her the keys to my car? No. I will apologize for raising her hopes unrealistically and invite her to ride shotgun.

In their unapplied forms, math and logic try to leapfrog past this epistemological quandary. The symmetries they seek are self-sufficient, independent of the marriage (whether it may be intimate or estranged) between the mind (sorry, a mind!) and the world. If a consonance exists between those symmetries and empirical reality, we can never really know it. Hardy seems to have acknowledged this, in a line from the same Apology to which the play continually returns: "A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas... The mathematician's patterns, like the painter's or the poet's, must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way... It may be very hard to define mathematical beauty, but that is just as true of beauty of any kind. We may not know quite what we mean by a beautiful poem, but that does not prevent us from recognizing one when we read it."

The question seems finally to lie in how wide we presume to draw the circle of "we." Complicite did a remarkable job of making maths' beauty visible, audible, palpable to some of us who don't normally perceive it. But what does my dog Pazzo care for the elegance and emotional resonance of a convergent infinite series? I cannot tell whether he cares for elegance at all. The joy he takes in snatching a frisbee from the air at the moment it pauses in flight suggests that he does, but when he drinks from the toilet I am forced to reconsider.