Very interesting. I often think about the portentously calamitous results of lacking physical frontiers. Throughout all of human existence, “going west” has been an option for those who simply couldn’t fit into societal structure. The rebellious, the peculiar, the outcast, even the criminals often chose to leave society and move out into uncharted space where sometimes they were transmuted into founders and leaders. It makes sense that the lack of mental or psychic frontiers will have a similarly negative effect on those who need mental exploration.
Powerful and perspective-inspiring. I wish I had written it.
I hear a lot of themes in this piece that Ross Douthat writes about (cultural stagnation, stagnation in the advancement of knowledge in the sciences and humanities, etc.) in his op-eds and books. Douthat is a a political and cultural conservative; are you as well, Roger's Bacon? If not, we can explore options in one direction. If yes, then we can pursue another.
"I consider that I understand an equation when I can predict the properties of its solutions, without actually solving it. This result is too beautiful to be false; it is more important to have beauty in one's equations than to have them fit experiment." - Paul Dirac
I wrote a long-ish essay here but substack somehow crashed and I lost it 🥲
The crux of it was that scientists are motivated more by the beauty and elegance of their ideas that actual curiosity. For example, you mentioned AI systems - current Neural Networks are so simple that I can explain it to a high-schooler in under an hour. Yet the results of dynamical/chaotic systems are truly awe-inspiring.
Science is more like art. We don't do art because our work is going to be a masterpiece that will withstand aeons. We do art because somehow, it is simultaneously stimulating, mystical as well as terrifying. Science similarly is driven by the framework of ideas (than ideas themselves). They aren't just curious about the entire universe - but also by why simple, elegant ideas manage to describe an indescribably complex system so well.
Neural networks are very simple. Yet they manage to dissect the mind, nature's masterpiece, in the most analytical fashion, leaving its secrets bare. Why do systems so different, almost universes apart, converge on the same behavior? Why is our world, so unimaginably complex, governed by simple trends?
I mentioned Zipf's law earlier - how a lot of aspects of nature is arranged in a power-law fashion. Recently, papers came out that language models' in-context learning abilities (how the model seems to adapt, if not "understand", when you give it completely novel instructions or ideas) arises because human languages - **all** of them - are governed by zipf's laws somehow, and such low frequency ideas/words/concepts forces the model to learn this ability if it wants to model language well.
These are patterns that facilitated us - patterns in the world that stimulated nature in such a way to create minds that are more receptive to them, unwittingly becoming conscious.
If I haven't managed to ignite the flame of curiosity within you, atleast, I hope to have instilled a sense of how beautiful abstract ideas are. No scientists wakes up, looking forward to fitting 5% more transistors in a chip or coming up with a novel antibiotic. We strive for beauty, which sometimes yields breakthroughs or advances. But the biggest "breakthroughs", that go unreported by the press are far more sublime and meaningful than achieving some technology that looks cool enough to excite star trek nerds ;)
Lastly, I leave you with fourier transforms. It's a deceptively simple mathematical idea for solving a pretty complex problem. Fourier didn't achieve a "breakthrough" when he scribbled it down - infact, he just scribbled it down as something he thought was fairly useless but simply just felt beautiful. It's only decades later that this idea is hailed to be so beautiful and elegant that its the favorites of math professors worldwide. Today, majority of computer science - down to the internet, AI, compression (like JPEG) and many other fields use the fourier transform almost all the time.
Another wonderful post. Thank you!
Thanks for this beautiful and compelling essay.
I haven't read part 1 yet, but I had a rush of thoughts while reading this one ...
I think part of the "lack of innovation/adventurousness" problem is that, all these years after humans' discovery of ignorance—and in turn, all these years deep into our scientific and technological "progress"—many of us moderns feel that the society's we've built are, as you touched on, spiritually (for lack of a better word) depressing, depleting, disconnecting, and unrewarding; in large part because they are so incongruous with our evolutionary "designs" (a la Daniel Lieberman's concept of "dysevolution": https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2013/10/daniel-lieberman-story-human-body). And so we now hold serious doubts that the progress made beyond, say, our hunger-gatherer pasts was really progress at all, or just an unfortunately long and deleterious (but, hey, also super action-packed) edition of Big Brains Gone Wild.
Maybe that will be our great discovery. That a return of some form to our ancient ignorance is what's needed. By ancient ignorance, I just mean existing in greater congruence with nature (I know, too woo, but I mean it) and clearer purpose and in more manageable and rewarding groups and environments, with no use for an endless assault of knowledge about what's going on in every minute of every day in every coordinate across the earth, most of which, according to the New York Times, et al, is either a crisis, or a breakthrough but probably also racist and transphobic and more than likely rooted in sexism and patriarchy and supremacy of some sort that we should all hate ourselves for, unless of course we're victims, in which case we should always be celebrated and called brave, at least publicly.
I wonder if our "visionaries" and "seers," as you put it, will be those who find ways out of the more miserable aspects of the modernity that we made and baked into the cake, not through more dysevolution and technological advancement, but through restoring some of the connections to our ancient humanity. Maybe this is the path to un-stunting what you called "the intrinsic magic of the human mind." Because I think the opposite path, i.e., the one we're on now and have been on for hundreds of years, is exactly why we see so many devoted humanists and atheists and just vaguely secular types and so on speaking "woo" and drawn primally to woo or woo-like concepts. And fair enough. I find myself doing the same. Bigger picture, though, I think humans are realizing more and more that living as brains plugged into (and bodies chained to) productivity machines kind of sucks, as does being locked into a system where continuous economic growth and technological advancement are necessary and inescapable, lest we slow down our collective progress and veer into the widespread impoverishment and death and societal collapse that now seem all but inevitable absent more economic growth and technological advancement.
Like you said: "When you are constantly in a narrow and focused visual mode, you are primed for detail, for problem-solving, and tipped ever so slightly towards anxious and aggressive states of mind; you become less likely to think holistically, to wonder (to wander), to ponder the mysteries of the universe, to stretch your imagination to its fullest extent. Magnify this effect over the billions of people who spend the majority of their lives indoors and glued to screens (especially those who should be best at thinking about the big picture and the far-flung future: our philosophers, scientists, and technologists) and you have a massive shift in the psychological state of our species."
Also like you said: "The prescription is simple. Open your eyes. Look to the horizon, to the sky, to the stars. Pick up your head from the phone and put it in the clouds. Do as Newton did and see further. ... In this age of rampant reductionism and rabid analysis, we must turn to perception and imagination for deliverance. The first step is to open our eyes and see further. The next is to open our minds and see the thing whole."
Amen to that. As I see it, a giant, missing piece of that whole thing we need to see is something we've been paving over and burying for hundreds of years beneath our mess of insatiable human progress. The sky, the stars, food that was alive just a minute ago, bodies that move and run and wander free from the drag of content creation, minds that don't run away from every hint of discomfort and boredom, lives full of "childliness" and free from the squandering slavery of worshipped progress and endless productivity—may these be our new adventures.
Excellent and thought provoking as always. I was reminded of this piece which drills into the broader way of seeing things:
For what it's worth I too have noticed this perspective shift as having a profound effect on my experience. I have tried to cultivate it, and I have had moments where I am in the most banal situations you can imagine (driving through suburbs, at the checkout line, stuff like that), and then I just do this little perspective shift and suddenly it's all grand and beautiful. I think of it like I'm considering whatever I'm seeing as if it were an artistically framed photograph or a Kubrick shot. I have found that you can apply this framing to pretty much any situation: "this could be a scene in a movie": I think, and I imagine the way it would fit into the narrative and the aesthetic and how it would serve the emotional aims of the movie. "Dropping back" is another conceptualization of it.