Any idiot knows there’s no such thing as pure reason. But over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with the subjectivity of my so-called objectivity. I’ve tried to plumb this paradox in a work-in-progress tentatively titled Science & Subjectivity. It’s a quasi-fictional account of a day in the life of a science writer who teaches at an engineering school. I call it “faction,” anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term for imaginative writing about real people, places and events. I’ve already presented two excerpts, one based on a class I taught to freshmen and the other on a conversation I had over lunch with three colleagues. Below is an excerpt that describes an early-morning commute from Cold Spring, New York, to Hoboken, New Jersey. –John Horgan
I step out of my apartment building and face the day’s first moral quandary. Should I stay on the asphalt path or cut across the grass to save a few seconds? If all the residents walked on the grass, it would perish. I should sacrifice my self-interest for the benefit of the group. If we don’t learn to be less selfish, nature and ultimately all of us may perish.
My watch says 6:18. The train comes in thirteen minutes, and I still have to buy a newspaper. This time won’t matter. I cut across the grass.
Two strips of orange crepe paper crisscross the violet pre-dawn sky. Clouds mess up climate-change forecasts, because no one knows if they will boost or dampen warming. I just saw an article on this problem that quoted the old Joni Mitchell lyric: "I really don't know clouds at all." I quoted that lyric when I wrote about the cloud problem 20 years ago.
Green science journalism: recycling clichés.
I walk down Fair Street past Our Lady of Loretto Church. Two kneeling stone angels with ecstatic expressions flank the church’s entrance. Who was Our Lady of Loretto? Maybe a mystic like Teresa, skewered by the shafts of Christ's love. One day we’ll all have optogenetic implants that deliver orgasmic mystical illumination on demand. If we’re all blissed out, who will cook the food? Take out the garbage? Operate the trains? Robots. And who will take care of the robots? Other robots. Duh.
I enter the Main Street café. The Times is already sold out. Just as well. Who needs news? It’s always the same depressing stories. Rich getting richer, poor poorer, Republicans and Democrats squabbling, drones incinerating people in lands far, far away. But now and then something good happens. The Cold War ends, Americans elect a Black President, gays get to marry. Little upticks on the path to heat death.
At the bottom of Main, I hustle up the wheelchair ramp to the northbound platform. Beside the elevator door a sign says, "Elevator to Track 1. Croton Harmon. New York." Beneath the words are raised dots. This braille sign and the wheelchair ramp show that we take care of the disabled. So did our ancestors, well before civilization began. Skeletons prove that Stone Agers took care of those with broken bones and severe arthritis. The roots of goodness run deep.
Just before the elevator door slides shut, I hear footsteps. Should I hold the door in case this person wants to take the elevator? No, I’m not in the mood for chitchat.
I walk to the front of the southbound platform and sit on the platform bench. The chilled concrete sucks heat from my buttocks, second law in action. How does nature always know what to do? Every instant it solves an infinite number of physics problems without ever making mistakes.
Unless we were a mistake.
A wedge of geese hurtles over us frantically flapping and honking. Why do they honk? Why not save their breath? Maybe they are exulting in their shared adventure, the approach of dawn. The geese vanish into the southern sky, which is radiant with expectation.
Why do we "Ooh" and "Ahh" over sunrises, sunsets, mountains, oceans? An instinctive love of nature? Biophilia? We hack down forests, bulldoze meadows, blow up mountains, poison rivers, but things might be worse if we lacked biophilia. Does this beauty—and our response to it--mean that God exists? Even Weinberg thinks nature is more beautiful than strictly necessary.
Whenever I look at the sky, I think of other things. I wish I could just see the sky now and then.
The tracks rumble and gleam, and the Metro North train thrums round the bend. Freud said dream trains mean death. Will I be ready when death comes?
I wonder if aging men think more about death and less about sex. That should be testable. Give men a smart-phone app that asks them throughout the day if they’re thinking about sex or death. No, that won’t work, because as soon as the men see the query, they’ll think about sex and death. You have to give them brain sensors—an EEG cap, or, better yet, implants--that record thoughts automatically. Then you have to sift through all the neural noise to find the signals of dread and desire. Not an easy task, especially when dread and desire mingle.
There are lots of open seats on the train. I sit in an aisle seat close to the door, so I can get out fast when we arrive in Grand Central. Someone behind me rasps. Oh no, not a snorer! Another strangled snort, then silence. Phew. Snorers can't help snoring, and I can't help hating them. They look so stupid and loathsome with their gaping fish mouths.
I take my journal and a pen from my backpack, but my mind is blank as the page of my notebook. That’s a lie. The mind is never blank. Thinking about emptiness is not the same as emptiness.
What would a bodhisattva think about as he’s riding the train? Like Buddha, or Ken Wilber? He wouldn’t be annoyed by the snorers, coughers, drones anxiously swiping smart phones. No, he’d feel sorry for them--and glad he’s enlightened. I'd like to feel that way.
The conductor enters the car, and I hand him my ten-ride ticket. He punches it, nods, I nod back. A minimal, no-frills exchange. Actually, our nods are frills, signs of mutual respect. We are not just instruments, means to each other's ends. We each possess intrinsic dignity and value. All humans do. Except snorers.
At Garrison, a guy in a pinstripe suit slides past me into the middle seat. How about an "Excuse me”? Or, "Is this seat taken?" My annoyance is automatic, like when someone passes me on a highway, and I accelerate, an innate competitive program kicking in. Then I think, "This is stupid," and I slow down.
Maybe we’ll stop fighting wars this way. We’ll all realize, “This is stupid,” and we’ll stop. Unless some jerk keeps speeding.
I look across the Hudson at the mighty fortress of West Point, veiled in morning mist. It looks so weird, out of place, like a set from Lord of the Rings. Its function is even weirder. Young men and women are learning how to kill with guns, bombs, drones.
The West Point museum shows how weapons have evolved from spears, muskets and machine guns up to the squat bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Fat Man. We gave a device for mass murder a nickname. A plaque over the museum’s entrance says, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." Soldiers probably find the aphorism heartening, like dentists thinking, "Only the dead have seen the end of cavities."
At Peekskill, a svelte blond in a blue business suit glides down the aisle. Pete's ex-wife, Donna! No, that can’t be right, Donna moved to Florida. This happens a lot lately. As I age, and my memory and eyesight blur, things resemble other things. When I'm really old, I will see all things as one thing, but I won’t be enlightened, just senile.
We cruise past Sing Sing prison, ringed by sun-gilded turrets and razor wire. Are the prisoners victims of circumstance or bad seeds? Circumstance, surely, almost all of them. Scientists who peddle the bad-seed theory should be locked up in Guantanamo and forced to read Steve Gould and Margaret Mead until they relent.
Gazing at the marmalade-glazed Palisades, I feel… good. Calm. Maybe even happy. Sometimes my mood feels like weather, beyond my control. Gusts of dread, exuberance, melancholy, irritation buffet me during the day. The same thing happens over longer periods. My inner weather is mild for a few days, then an anxiety front moves in, taking a couple of days to pass. I can always find reasons--an upcoming lecture, article deadline, spat with a colleague--but these are as flimsy as day-after explanations for stock-market dips.
My moods can’t stem entirely from physical factors, genes switching on and off, neurotransmitters ebbing and surging, things I'm eating and drinking. No, circumstances matter, actions matter. When I was young, I often felt bad, because I was lonely and wasn’t sure what to do with my life. But then I found love, and meaningful work, and my climate changed. My base-line mood shifted toward happiness.
Maybe someday science will give us power over our inner weather. Implants that deliver joy on demand, and block heartbreak and dread. No one could resist such self-control. The end of suffering might also mean the end of creativity, of meaning, but no one would care.
If an implant malfunctions, who would fix it? Robots.
South of Harlem the train plunges into darkness. Well before we arrive at Grand Central, the ritual of disembarkation begins, a marvel of self-organization. You can leave your seat and move toward the door while the train is still rolling, but once the train stops, you must let people in the rows ahead of you exit first. That’s the tacit rule.
After the train lurches to a stop, people exiting rows glance at people already standing in the aisle, exchanging smiles and nods. We happily choose cooperation over self-interest for our common benefit, to avoid anarchy and save time. Those who fail to follow the rules are usually outsiders, kids or tourists. Even psychopathic lawyers and bankers adhere to the train’s unspoken etiquette. It makes me proud to be human.
Once I exit the train, I scoot past plodders out of the tunnel and into the swarming main chamber of Grand Central. The crowd seems chaotic, but if you plotted the trajectories of individuals, patterns would emerge. People drift, shuffle and dash athletically. Or they stand, scanning departure announcements or looking for lost companions.
Halfway through my dash across the terminal, I find myself on a collision course with another dasher, a chunky guy in a brown suit. We feint and juke until our chests almost bump before sliding past each other with irritated grimaces and eye rolls. Our brains are such sophisticated navigators, and yet we still end up in these awkward jigs of confusion.
Universal brain implants would eliminate this problem. My implant, swapping signals with those of other commuters, would calculate an optimal, collision-free trajectory and command my motor cortex accordingly.
Implants can’t eliminate all our social problems. There are no perfect, final solutions to friendship, work, international relations, because they are NP-hard, like the traveling-salesman problem. But implants could reduce the guesswork that leads to conflict.
If Tricia and I had implants, maybe we’d still be married. Maybe not.
As I wait for the Shuttle to Times Square, I listen to a sad old hippy on the platform sing "Light My Fire." His open guitar case is littered with bills and coins. He probably primed the case with money to encourage our donations. He knows we are herd creatures, more likely to do what others have done.
I drop a dollar into the guitar case and nod at the musician, who nods back. It’s a tough way to make a buck. But is blogging about science any better? I'm begging Internet surfers: "Please pause a moment, read me. Actually, you don't even have to read me. Just Tweet me, Like me, tell others to Like me." It’s so undignified.
It would be nice doing something more functional, like a subway conductor or garbage man. The downside is that robots will replace them. Robots will never replace science bloggers, because we aren't necessary. We're a frill.
The shuttle arrives, people get off, we get on. People in my car sit and stand, scanning or listening to tablets and smart phones, absorbing information for entertainment or self-advancement. Information must surprise you, tell you something you didn't know, change your choices, or it's not information, it's just mindless physics.
I bet no one here is reading a science blog.
A young guy sticks his briefcase between the closing doors and squeezes in, saying, "Sorry, sorry." We’re all thinking, "Wait for the next train, jerk," but we say nothing, because we are good, decent people. When the doors slide open in Times Square, we exit in a polite, orderly fashion. Not like sheep, but like dignified, mutually respectful, rational humans following the Golden Rule in spite of our impatience and irritation.
Maybe a little like sheep, but in a good way. Conformity can be a force for good.
The PATH platform is jammed. I walk along the track edge, monitoring people around me for unpredictable moves that could bump me onto the tracks. Would I save someone who fell on the tracks? Like the Subway Samaritan, that black construction worker who saw a man have a seizure and fall on the tracks as a subway approached. The Samaritan jumped onto the man and held him down as the subway roared over them.
Where does that impulse come from? Risking your life for a stranger? The evolutionary psychologists say natural selection bred compassion into our ancestors because good deeds were often rewarded, boosting do-gooders’ reproductive prospects. Tit for tat.
The Subway Samaritan got lots of tit for his tat. Bush invited him to the State of the Union address, and Trump wrote him a big check. I admired the Subway Samaritan until I learned he had kids. What would have happened to them if he’d been killed?
Self-sacrificing altruism is overrated, and cowardice is underrated. If we were all cowards, war would end.
Someone is yelling, a woman sitting on a bench beside bulging plastic bags. "Leave me alone!” she screams. “I’m a good mother!" No one is there, she's yelling at air. Our minds teem with alter egos, but most of us know the difference between real and imaginary personas. Not schizophrenics. Their inventions come to life and torment them, like Frankenstein’s monster.
Careening under the Hudson to Hoboken, I brood over how often I’ve done this before. Week after week I commute to Hoboken to teach the same students, and next semester I’ll get a fresh crop and start over. I get older, greyer, more wrinkled, but I’m becoming a better teacher, if only because I was so bad to begin with. Life’s okay, as long as we can achieve a few temporary triumphs over entropy.
After I exit the Hoboken terminal, I bear right across the cobblestone parking lot to the Hudson promenade. Suited men and women hustle north and south on the promenade carrying shoulder bags, brief cases, backpacks. Dark-skinned women push light-skinned children in carriages.
A sleek young man wearing ear buds strides rapidly past me, yelling, hands slicing the air, eyes focused on an invisible person before him. He’s not schizophrenic, just a jerk. More and more, we're connected, texting, talking, emailing each other. This is a preview of the ultimate mind meld, the Singularity, when we all become one.
These Singularity nuts better hope their dreams don’t come true, because you need at least two things for there to be something. You need a mind, and something else. If everything is one thing, that’s the same as nothing.
It’s a lovely, sunny morning, but no one seems to care. Everyone is on a mission. I am too, but maybe I should lollygag a little. Pay attention.
Blue, white and yellow ferries churn up, down and across the shining Hudson. Beyond the river, the Empire State Building proudly guards a flock of lesser buildings. Another skyscraper looks like a giant plucked it from its foundation, dipped its tip in molten gold and set it right-side up again.
As I walk along the river, the apparent distance between the skyscrapers shifts. The parallax effect. We can't see the distances between stars shift as the Earth swings around the Sun because the stars are so far, far away. We are infinitesimal, compared to the cosmos, but we matter.
When I look down, I see my black sneakers striding right, left, right, left over red and grey bricks. The promenade’s brickwork goes well beyond basic functionality. The promenade could have been all red bricks, or all grey, but it’s made of three alternating strips: solid red, followed by a red strip with an embedded grey square, a solid grey strip, and then a solid red strip again. Repeat repeat repeat.
The designer could have added a grey strip with embedded red square to make the pattern more symmetrical. Or, even cooler, the pattern could have been quasi-periodic, like Penrose tiles. Everyone thought Penrose tiles were entirely imaginary, but then physicists discovered quasicrystals, three-dimensional versions of Penrose tiles.
We keep discovering weird correspondences between our fantasies and the world. Like imaginary numbers, made of the square root of negative numbers. They seemed pointless, but they turned out to be great for describing quantum stuff. Is the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics evidence of some divine platonic order? A geek God?
Looking down at my feet I realize I'm doing it again, automatically shortening or broadening my stride to land on the edge of one brick strip, cleanly in the middle of the next strip, on the edge of the one after that. Repeat repeat repeat.
This compulsion was much worse when I was a kid. I stepped on all or none of the seams of sidewalks, and counted steps and pavestones. I got stuck in infinite loops, like thinking about thinking about thinking. Once I got stuck in a loop, finding a way out was hard, like trying to remember to forget. Hours later I'd think, "Hey, I'm not thinking about thinking any more!" Then, "Oh no!" Repeat repeat repeat.
Renegade programs no longer hijack my brain like that. And endless loops aren’t so bad if they allow for novelty, like Penrose tiles and quasicrystals. They imply that everything comes from a simple algorithm that churns out infinite, entropy-defying surprises. But what is that algorithm, and where did it come from? Can we discover it? Imagine it?
Before I veer off the promenade toward my school, I pass a grey-haired woman in a red tracksuit. She stands still, facing the river, arms raised, beaming. I wonder if she’s really seeing the river.