On Knowing, Dialogue and Mysticism (Part Two)

comments 21
Reflections / Science

Last time I expressed my dissatisfaction with the attempts Julia Galef made to understand the “other” in our lives, in this case Richard Feynman’s artist friend, who felt that scientific descriptions of things, to put words in the artist’s mouth, ruin them. What Richard reported his friend actually said, speaking about the beauty of a flower, is that “you, as a scientist, you take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.”

Richard at this point described his friend as “nutty.”

The core of my dissatisfaction with Julia’s attempts to understand the artist is that she undertook her efforts without wondering if the artist knew anything she didn’t. The resulting justifications given for the artist’s position were very weak: the artist we come to “understand” through her explanations prefers image to reality for reasons of pleasure, or… if we’re unconvinced, is more confusing to us than when we started. Or should have been, at any rate.

Julia makes sure to assert she wouldn’t want to be the artist she claims to have understood, which I think begs the question why anyone would. Here is where we might learn something, but Julia is not really curious about this, and is content with the portrayal of the artist she has given. It is this contentment that vexes me. Denial of the possibility that the artist may comprehend or feel something that Julia or Richard do not transforms the exercise from one of potentially discovering a legitimate basis for the artist’s position, into one which can only establish why the artist’s position is second-best. This is elitism—an unconscious form of it perhaps, but no less real or impactful by being unintended.

So now I want to suggest there are perfectly good reasons a person may say something like, “[you scientists] take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” Not because a person can’t handle the scientific truth alongside of their aesthetic sensibilities, but because some recapitulations of the scientific view are antagonistic to elements of reality that others directly experience and hold dear. Let’s leave Richard’s artist friend out of this for a moment and insert the accomplished mystic in his place. He might say, “The whole of the universe is contained in this flower. And yet it is perfectly unique. It is remarkable. Can you see it?” Or we could put the indigenous elder into the seat, and she might say, “This flower is my relative. We gather them by the river in summer. You can hear the ones ready to give of themselves for the people. In our ceremonies, we honor them and we pray their nation is strong.”

When Richard and Julia attempt to describe the artist’s position, they both define it as an aesthetic one. Aesthetics is subjective. I like blueberries and you prefer cherries. I like Ford and you prefer Chevy. What Richard and Julia are saying when they ascribe the artist’s position to aesthetics is that the appreciation of a flower’s beauty is sort of quirky–a fashion sense, a matter of personal taste. From their point of view, they must make this assertion because it is the most benevolent one of which they are capable that is consistent with their views. But one cannot assert the mystic and the indigenous elder are experiencing a fashion sense, so those positions must be denied altogether. These two are, in essence, delusional.

The mystic and the indigenous elder above, however, are not delusional: they are simply speaking about the flower from perspectives that lie outside of the perceptual lens of a subject-object orientation. They are speaking about wholeness, and further, about the vehicle of deep interconnectedness and relationship through which wholeness arises as a form of immediate sensation and knowledge. This profound sensation of relatedness is, I believe, universal. It is accessible to anyone, and to all life. It is not unique to our planet, our time and place, our culture, or even our species. But it can be conceptually denied.

I made the assertion last time that a great many of us are debating only partial views of the whole. What I meant is that we’re trying to explain things—both the artist and the scientist—as if wholeness is not real, and when we do this we’re missing the essence of one another’s experience as well as our own. We can deny the most fundamental sensations of life, or when they arise in our experience—as they inevitably do—we can insist they are something other than they are, but we can’t prevent the very basis of our existence from seeping into our lives. We have the freedom to label what is, but not to change its very nature.

When Richard says in the video, “First of all, the beauty that [my artist friend] sees is available to me and to other people, too,” he is noting, without realizing it, that we all possess the ability to be touched by beauty directly, and further, by wholeness, even if we don’t define it as such. Richard’s artist friend, on the other hand, when suggesting that the scientific view “takes things apart” and “makes them dull things” is speaking to the direct experience of what occurs when the reality of wholeness is denied. Unfortunately, in this exchange neither Richard nor the artist, at least from the reporting we have, can see that both of their positions can be true at once.

The artist may not realize in conceptual terms that he is defending the immediate and universal reality of wholeness, but he doesn’t need to. The artist can sense directly, without effort, when the sensation of relatedness that provides him joy and the direct knowledge of being has been interrupted. Richard can sense it, too, when to his dissatisfaction the artist suggests the scientific description of our world is superfluous to a profound appreciation of reality. For Richard, the artist is denying the essential nature of the very activity that, to him, provokes the sensation of joy and deep relatedness that he, too, seeks. The mistake is the failure of Richard and his artist friend to realize that as unique individuals, the specific triggers or vehicles that return the joy of being who they are, and which place them in contact with the tangible sensation of wholeness, are not the same for them. They further err by insisting that the joy of perceiving the flower’s shape, color and texture must be somehow different than the joy of understanding the cells, the molecular composition, and the quantum electrodynamic chicanery deployed in the chloroplasts. It’s not! Joy is not conceptual!

As individuals we have unique passions, curiosities, talents and predilections. But the joy that comes of the direct sensation of relatedness to the whole, of experiencing the particularities of our own existence as good and wonderful, is the same. And the wholeness from which every expression of life and existence has emerged is our common root, our common heritage, the ultimate identity we share. When this is understood, there is room for the unique perceptions of the artist, the scientist, the mystic, the indigenous elder, and all forms and conditions of life in between.

As my friend Lee Roetcisoender recently wrote me, in a statement I thought was perfect, “What has become an urgent necessity is a way of looking at the world that does no violence to either of these two kinds of understanding and actually unites them into one.” He was speaking about the artist and the scientist. And he’s exactly right. This way, I believe, will be rooted in acknowledgment of the underlying reality of profound unity, relationship, and interconnectedness through and upon which all of our unique vantages are realized. Such a reality is universal even as it is directly personal. It is felt as the uniqueness and joy of being who we are, and has nothing to do with intellectual capacity, refinement of aesthetic sensibilities, hours in the training room, value at which your paintings or sold, number of scientific papers you’ve written, or any other criteria one might assert to distinguish themselves and their tribe from the “others.”

Wholeness is simply the heart of what makes all of us, us. And without it, we are lost.


  1. Hi Michael,

    I appreciate you acknowledging that this can be a failing on both sides. I think most scientists don’t abandon their appreciation of the whole when they study the parts and workings. And I think most artists have no problem with scientific accounts. It’s only those who can’t change their hats, who can’t change perspectives depending on the context, who I think have an issue here. (Unfortunately this appears to be a non-insignificant number of people.)

    Your description of wholeness, if I’m understanding it correctly, reminds me of an article that Philip Goff wrote a few years ago but recently shared again. In it, he’s talking about the supposed intrinsic nature of matter, all in service of conclusions I disagree with. But in describing the opposition views of causal structuralism and holism, I realized he was describing my own position, or at least one I’m sympathetic to. (I will say I respect when someone can describe a view they oppose well enough that the opposition recognizes their own position. My respect for Goff rose accordingly.)

    Causal structuralism is that we can only understand things in terms of their dispositions, of the effects they will cause, essentially by what they do. But this implies a type of holism:

    The word ‘holism’ is a bit slippery, but in this context we can take it to be the view that things are inter-defined, in the sense that the very identity of each thing is a matter of its relationships to every other thing. For the holist, entities come as a package: we can’t completely understand the nature of any one thing in isolation from the nature of everything else. Causal structuralism would seem to imply a kind of holism, as each thing is defined relationally, in terms of its effects, which are defined in terms of their effects, which are defined in terms of their effects, and so on until we eventually loop back in a circle.


    It seems like this converges on the ideas you’re discussing here. Unless I’m missing something important.

    So yes, both views are valid. The thing to realize, I think, is that they’re different levels of description of the same reality, and therefore each useful in particular contexts.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Mike,

      We’ve had our moments of disagreement about this and related topics on your own blog and I really appreciate your reply here, which I perceive as an attempt to understand what I’m saying and value. Thank you. In the article you quoted I’m also more sympathetic to the causal structuralism Goff described, and less sympathetic to his description of the intrinsic nature of matter. I think the description of causal structuralism is closer to the nature of things at the level of manifest form. It reminds me a lot of, or is perhaps cousin to, the Buddhist notion of interbeing (a phrase I think the famous writer and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh may have coined), or dependent origination, or interdependent co-arising. Pick you favorite term I guess!

      I think this idea is a universal one–e.g. one that is common in diverse cultures–and reflects a true insight into phenomena. In Goff’s example, he seems frustrated that the curvature of space cannot be defined without resorting to a description of matter, and that matter can’t really be understood in the absence of the curvature of space. But this is a great example of phenomena that are not truly independent, and cannot be teased apart. In Buddhism, no phenomena can be truly teased apart.

      But this is at the level of phenomena. In other words, this example expresses a sort of manifest relatedness, and I believe, and think Buddhism may as well, that there is also a deeper level of underlying unity of which this manifest form is but a reflection. And it is this that I was also somewhat abstractly trying to point towards. That said, for the purposes of this piece and also this exchange, even the contemplation of this manifest interdependency and inseparability of things is a powerful insight. Like great art and great science, it may spark a sensation of joy.

      My final point is that whatever the catalyst may be, when we experience the genuine joy of our nature, this has its ground in the deeper level of underlying unit and our relationship to it. It is this deeper fulcrum that can hold the “two sides” of art and science together, and unify them. All paths of inquiry and expression but point to and reside upon this one, and I hoped to say it is no farther than the joy of who we are.

      It’s pretty cool that right now we’ve been discussing entanglement at your place because I think it fits into the phenomenal-level interconnectedness. It’s like witnessing it firsthand and it’s pretty mind-blowing. Anyway, always enjoy our conversations, Mike! Thanks for the visit.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey Michael! Total aside: I just finished another Paul Beatty novel, Slumberland (2008), and enjoyed it as much as I did The Sellout. I owe learning about Beatty from your suggestion about the latter, so thank you very much!

    I read both books as library books, but realized I had to own them along with Beatty’s other two novels, The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Tuff (2000), so I just bought all four. That man’s facility and fun with language really tickles my fancy!

    Thanks again for the recommendation!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Awesome! I appreciate the feedback. I’ve only read The Sellout and White Boy Shuffle so far, but the other two are not far down the list. Beatty is a great writer. You’re exactly right about his clever and delectable use of language. So many levels… I’ve still got The Curse of the Golden Flower on my movie list also…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. When I see someone smile or cry, I may not understand their unique circumstance that caused this behavior, but I can share this moment of happiness or sadness with them in the same way.

    Liked by 2 people

    • True. Empathy is a powerful vehicle for connecting. What I hoped to suggest here also is that genuine joy is a marker of our contact with the truth of who we are, which is evidence of our contact with the reality of unity and interconnection that underwrite out being. We can use our minds to conceptualize and intellectualize and “judge” experiences in countless ways, but joy is a good example of one that springs from a deeper reality. All of our true feelings–the feelings that are not a defense of an egoic structure–lead to deeper understanding if we’re open to this…


  4. I had an interesting thought last night about a counterpoint to the inclusive Yin-Yang view, a memory from back when I was playing music.

    I was big on improvisation and writing my own tunes, and a lot of them I just had in my head, a base melody, a chord progression, a basic rhythm structure, and I played them a little differently every time. They were my tunes, so obviously I liked them plenty.

    But I discovered that trying to write them out seemed to ruin them. Even the effort of looking at what I was playing closely enough to write out the notes took the beauty out of the tune. It was a lesson for me that some things maybe shouldn’t be looked at too analytically because that does take something away.

    I never pursued a musical career, in large part because I realized I just wasn’t that good, so it may well be that a better musician would never suffer from this disconnect. They would be able to live in both worlds, the one of musical beauty and the one of musical analysis. In some cases, maybe for those not fully yet advanced in an area, there is something to the notion that looking too closely isn’t a good idea.

    Thinking about this also reminded me of the many long days I spent taping and painting a Masonite floor to look like an octagonal pattern of marble tiles for a play we did in high school (I was a backstage guy). I knew painfully every flaw I’d introduced and didn’t think the floor looked very good at all. But the audience, seeing it for the first time, and in stage lighting, liked it just fine.

    So again, maybe there are times beauty should just be taken in for what it is. Look too closely and you begin to see the wrinkles and warts.

    Perhaps the real lesson is that there aren’t many fixed rules to life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can see your point, Wyrd. If something is really difficult for a person, the struggle to achieve some understanding of it may be counterproductive in terms of just appreciating what is. Let’s say there is a novel I love, and for whatever reason I’m tasked with translating it into a language I don’t speak: the technical challenges of the new language will place me so far into the analytical side of my being that I’ll probably lose contact with the raw feelings I felt in response to the novel to start with. But if I spoke both languages with equal facility, this would not be a problem. And I suspect that if you had a good facility with writing your music down–in such a way that the writing of it was a recreation of the experience of it–then it wouldn’t pull you out of the feeling side of it nearly as much.

      For someone who doesn’t learn math or science very easily, this could certainly be a factor. What I hoped came through also is that when the basis for appreciation of beauty is actually a recognition of what is universal, what is whole, and of what connects us all, this is a form of understanding that no additional information can enhance or improve. It is perfectly sufficient unto itself, and not a “less than” position.


      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for this Michael, and especially these words: ”
    This way, I believe, will be rooted in acknowledgment of the underlying reality of profound unity, relationship, and interconnectedness through and upon which all of our unique vantages are realized. Such a reality is universal even as it is directly personal. It is felt as the uniqueness and joy of being who we are…” Namaste

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I hope to be able to come around and read up on your recent posts as soon as the time is available! I want to just say “hello” to you for now and happy that you have writing going on topics that are inspiring you to make another series. Much love your way!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Ka! Much love to you as well. I think we’re both running in some busy circles but so nice to say hello in the meanwhile!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I came back around again and lost my comment. I attempted to recapitulate what I thought you were saying, and my cerebellum got a little tired. But I believe you were speaking here about wholeness and pointing to the fact that Julia was converting the artist into “2D” unknowingly or unwittingly to make her argument and it ended up sounding elitist and misinformed. You were dissatisfied by her missing the wholeness of the artist/mystic or shaman who regards the flower as relative. She was missing the point. I also tend to agree with Hariod and his comment about Mind and understanding.

      I’m hoping you are having a wonderful Spring, experiencing lots of moments of connection and joy.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Haha. Well lovely to “see” you here, Ka! Thanks for dropping back by… This was kind of a heady post so I can fully understand the fatigue, but you summarized it pretty well. Another way to approach this might be to suggest that the distinction between art and science is a red herring, and that one can speak of beauty, on the one hand, and quantifiable metrics on the other, but if wholeness is omitted from these conversations then they are similarly hobbled and somewhat empty disciplines.

          Art without relationship to the profound unity that enlivens us becomes a random fashion, a fad or an exclusively stylistic endeavor that those in the “know” can appreciate together, but which is little more than the Emperor’s new clothes. And science divorced from unity is in my mind much the same; without the grounding understanding that we share One Life in a sense, it views everything through a reductive filter that strains the very life of things out of the picture and leaves it aside.

          But also I’m trying to say that the pictures I painted in the previous paragraph are somewhat extreme: no scientist is every wholly removed from at least the visceral joy of discovery, which always involves some spark of unity. And even an artist devoted to a superficial aesthetic comprehends when a reductionist view squeezes their own heartfelt sensibility out of a work. The fact is unity, or wholeness, at some level is inescapable. And what Julia failed to entertain was the notion that there is something greater at stake here than aesthetics vs the quantification of experience… What’s missing is that we are all, all the time, in relationship to the Whole. We are all, all the time, expressions of unity.


          Liked by 1 person

  7. Trying to ‘understand’ Mind [cap deliberate] through mind’s conceptions can never provide a full understanding, can it, Michael?

    No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,
    But by reflection, by some other things.

    — Julius Caesar, I.2

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hariod! I missed this… Hope you are well, my friend. Agreed that it’s not going to be fruitful to try and comprehend Mind through mind’s conceptions. A lovely quote to confirm… and to answer the question of how do we gain wisdom and understanding of our nature!?

      Liked by 1 person

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