Friday, January 27, 2012

A Peripatetic Search for Truth

This is an essay that I wrote for my 25th college reunion in 2003


            When I was fourteen years old, I made a resolution to devote my life to seeking truth.  I had a mental image of what truth looked like.  It was a very bright light that shot off sparks, like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.  I was going to follow this light and I was going to find TRUTH. 
I cannot remember if I imagined that bright light before or after student radicals blew up my father’s laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, which was the other pivotal, character-forming event of that year: waking up to that thunderous sound in the middle of the night, then the phone call, then my father telling my mother that his whole life had been destroyed with that laboratory.  It must have been before. 
            As I recall, in high school, my search for truth focused on an interest in pre-Christian religions in Europe.  I imagined my non-Semitic ancestors in northern Europe, the ones on my mother’s side, being wrongfully and forcefully deprived of their sacred Druidic beliefs.  I craved lost knowledge from that period.  I also felt compelled to leave the Episcopal Church, which I had joined at age 13, after being very impressed with Billy Graham on television, because my senior honors English teacher, whom I detested, was a deacon there.  I joined the youth group at the local Unitarian fellowship, which sought truth in camping trips, massage, courses in human sexuality, and marijuana.   I recall little awareness at the time of what seems now like a stark contrast between these positions.
            After high school, I became an exchange student in France.  My period in France was very confusing to my view of truth.  I found myself surrounded by people who found religion somewhat quaint and amusing, but hardly worthy of public discussion.  Of course, my own father had been an agnostic, but he was not one to comment on other’s beliefs, and my childhood best friend was an atheist, but I had never seen people for whom religion was so simply irrelevant and unimportant as it seemed in France. 
In France, I also found myself sharing a desk with a Trotskyite.  Somehow, growing up just after the Red Scare, I had subconsciously come to associate Communism with madness.  It provoked a real identity crisis for me, finding myself sharing a desk with an obviously sane, and very nice, girl, who was not only Communist, but an ultra revolutionary type of Communist.  
            I came back from France a very different person, but I couldn’t have said who.  I almost immediately found myself sharing a Dartmouth dorm room with someone who underwent a very emotional born again Christian experience freshman spring.  This experience first manifested itself when I found her shaving her legs in preparation for being baptized in the Dartmouth swimming pool.  Later she sometimes she sat on her bed staring at the ceiling, transported with bliss.  I could not connect with this behavior.   Leg shaving seemed so vain.  A swimming pool seemed so secular that it sounded heretical to be baptized in it.   The juxtaposition of the two together was weird for me.  I would have preferred to be back in France sharing a desk with a Trotskyite, somehow the latter would have seemed less shocking. 
            I resolved, somewhat electrally, possibly remembering for the first time in several years my image of that sparkling light of TRUTH, that I was going to search for TRUTH in my major, physics, which was also my father’s field.  I imagined that, by digging deep into the submicroscopic domains of atomic, nuclear, and plasma physics, I would find the fundamental mechanisms by which the entire universe was governed.  Coincidentally, my first lab partner freshman year was a Maoist.   How did that happen at conservative Dartmouth?  My mother, a liberal Mount Holyoke alum, told me that Dartmouth students had fought on the side of the British during the revolutionary war and they had been that way (reactionary) ever since.
            My conviction that physics was the path to truth was to last little better than those things that came before.  The end came one day, when I was sitting in quantum mechanics, listening to my favorite physics professor, Bruce Pipes.  He had come to the point in his lecture where he had proven that the mathematical formulations of quantum mechanics allowed two initially identical systems to reach different, i.e. non-identical, states; because of the inherent randomness of the underlying processes.  At this point, because he found himself in a liberal arts school, he decided to say something philosophical.  He said something to the effect of “This is where Einstein said ‘God does not play dice with the universe.’ And if it bothered Einstein it should bother you, too.”  It did bother me.
In parallel with my study of physics, I had discovered I had a great love of history, particularly Chinese intellectual history.  I had been distressed to discover that I enjoyed history more than physics, even though history was harder for me.  I had learned to read text very slowly, because in math and physics you cannot skip even one word.  In history, I had to read a book every week, which required skimming.  It’s hard to be able to skim and read in great detail with the same brain.  My new love of history made me question my choice of major. 
My favorite history professor, John Major (no pun intended), knowing my interest in science, gave me some brief, informal, private instruction in the history of the philosophy of science.  He told me that early scientists had believed in a loving God.  They believed a loving God must govern the world according to predictable, discoverable, and understandable laws.  They reasoned that only a tyrant would govern the world in any other way.  I had also been studying Russian and the Soviet Union.  Someone at about that time (or maybe it was later) said to me that the great wrong of the Soviet Union was that no one could discover the rules.  One could be sent to the gulag without understanding what one had done.  That was the essence of tyranny.  According to early scientists, God was the opposite.  Everything with God would be predictable, sensible, understandable.
So, when I sat there listening to Bruce Pipes talking about Einstein’s philosophical problems with quantum mechanics, I saw a reductio ad absurdum, something I had studied in my second major, mathematics.  If you were doing a mathematical proof, and your reasoning led you to a conclusion that contradicted your assumptions, that proved that your assumptions were wrong.  If the science of physics had proved that God was random, capricious, and unpredictable, that meant that science itself was based on a false assumption.
The increasing complexity of the sub-atomic zoo that plasma physicists were uncovering also concerned me.  The bizarreness of the results suggested to me that one might find almost anything by sufficient application of physics.  This tended to confirm my belief that physics was based on false assumptions.
Conveniently, the Taoism and Zen Buddhism that I had studied in Chinese intellectual history provided an attractive, alternative world view. I had also been studying yoga in P.E.
I began attending a Quaker Meeting near campus, which appealed to my mew Zen-like awareness.  It also appealed to me because of its pacifism, which felt right to me in light of the bombing of my father’s laboratory.  I, too, had been opposed to the war in Vietnam, but could not at all support the idea of bombing my father’s laboratory.   The very first message I heard in a Quaker Meeting was “I need not shout my faith.  The very hills are mute, yet how they speak of God.”  This had exactly 17 words.  17 was a very fashionable number in the math department.   This message also spoke to my disapproval of the way I saw some Christians expressing their faiths.   It all sort of crystallized for me.  It took three and a half years, but I eventually became a Quaker.  In this way, I began on a path of seeking truth through meditation, while still at Dartmouth. 
I tried auditing a course in European intellectual history to balance my Chinese intellectual history.  I found the European one so boring that I could not stand it — besides, it all seemed to be leading in the direction of the mathematical and scientific reasoning that I was rejecting.
I had essentially completed the physics major, so I was able to drop the second major, mathematics, and pursue my study of Russian, instead, so that I could spend the summer after graduation in the Soviet Union, which seemed much more exciting.  I did go to the Soviet Union, but my experience there was not very truth altering.  I was kept in a dormitory with other Americans.  I was mostly irritated with their cultural insensitivity and rudeness.
When I read these paragraphs about the things I was thinking at Dartmouth, I see that the college did a really good job.  The number of different ideas that I was exposed to there was enormous; and what I have described here is only part of them.
I ended up going to law school in 1980, after working at IBM for two years.  IBM at that time reminded me a bit too much of the Soviet Union.  I was even working on software for keeping track of the five year plan of the local site.  Play the music from “The Twilight Zone” at this point.  The IBM internal publications for employees reminded me a lot of Pravda.  Of course, my comparative economics course at Dartmouth had taught me that the Soviet government was essentially state capitalism.  The resemblance to corporate governance should not have surprised me, but it did, unpleasantly.
Law school (at Columbia) led me in the direction of believing that TRUTH did not exist.  Instead, truth became a relative thing, depending on your perspective.  Is a hard transition going from math and physics to law.  You have to abandon the idea that there is a correct step-by-step way to reason from a good assumption to a correct conclusion.  You have to substitute the idea that reason can be twisted to a myriad of world views.   But I did end up a lawyer.  Being a lawyer seemed to fit well with my Zen-like view of the world.  And now, when I read, I find it easy to skim, and very hard to read in great detail. 
But my Zen-like view, too, was to become unsatisfying.  The shock to my belief in meditation came with my second child, in 1993.  I had affiliated myself at that time with a Quaker Meeting that was very New Age in character.  It had a yoga class.  Many of the members aspired to Eastern-style meditation.   The silence there was very deep and mystical.  
I often sat in the meeting with my child, who had a birth defect, laryngomalacia.  This condition makes it hard for the child to breath.  The breathing is labored, and noisy.  Fortunately, the children generally grow out of it, if they survive, which mine did.  I love my children passionately, and I loved sitting with this baby in Meeting.  His noises did not prevent me from centering. 
The other members of the Meeting found my child’s noises disturbing to their meditations.  They asked me not to bring him in any more.
I was outraged.  I remembered the words of Jesus: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”  I was quite certain that he would never have sent my child away as these Quakers had done.  Eastern-style meditation suddenly seemed very puerile.
I developed a theory of modes of anthropomorphization of the universe.  I identified the following modes:

  •             paganism, where the universe is governed by a multiplicity of anthropomorphic spirits;
  •               monotheism, where the universe is associated with a single personality;
  •               science, where the universe is modeled with a particular kind of human thought, i.e. mathematics;
  •               Eastern-style meditation, where the practitioner associates an altered human mind state, induced by meditation, with the ultimate nature of the universe. 
I decided that all of these modes of anthropomorphization were fundamentally futile, that the universe is beyond human understanding.  
            I notice that a lot of educated people seem to have a hard time with the idea that mathematics is only a form of human thought.  To them, I tell the example of how we learned to count.  We hold out our hand.  We count five fingers.  We think that it exists outside of our heads, but it is only our heads that let us look at our hand as having five fingers that can be grouped together, when each finger is unique.
I started going to a different Quaker Meeting, one where my son seemed more welcomed and where things were a good deal less mystical and more secular. 
This did not prevent me from having a Zen-like experience several years later, at work.  I was an intellectual property attorney at Philips Electronics North America Corporation.  One of my responsibilities was to supervise the use of the house trademarks: the word “Philips” in a particular font and the shield emblem, which had to be reproduced exactly, photographically.  This was a very frustrating experience.  Every sales and marketing person had some creative way that he or she wanted to change these symbols.  Each such person thought that his or her variation had some special marketing appeal, while in fact none of these variations were permissible at all.  Eventually, I had seen so many impermissible variations that they all looked utterly random, and all equally stupid. 
I was complaining about this to a sympathetic listener, another attorney in my department, who was similarly distressed at the way all of these variations in the use of the marks kept popping up.  And then my moment hit me:
Randomness/Creativity,
Quantum Mechanics/God. 
I cannot put into this into words very well.  But it seemed very overwhelming to me at the time.  I was rather dizzy and had to sit down.  I tried to explain what I was thinking to my co-worker, who was a Roman Catholic.  I’m not sure whether he understood.
            Something similar happened to me only a few weeks ago.  My older son is 12.  He has been reading The Lord of the Rings. Actually, he read it several times and also watched the movie several times.  He was curious as to why the movie depicted Sauron having a physical body.  He pulled out a reference volume, which explained that Sauron was a lieutenant of Morgoth.   Morgoth was a God, a God of evil.  My son reasoned that this would make Sauron a demon.  My son was troubled with the idea that a demon would have a physical body.  He thought a demon should only be a spirit. 
            I pointed out that many books depict demons as having a kind of material/spiritual duality.  This would include the Bible, the Xanth series (that my son has also been reading), as well as The Lord of the Rings.  I told my son that material/spiritual duality reminded me of the wave/particle duality of quantum mechanics. This also hit me in a Zen-like way, as I imagine Zen monks are hit with sticks in their monasteries:
                        Material/spiritual duality (religious and fantasy literature)*
                        Wave/particle duality (Quantum Mechanics)
Are subatomic particles demons?  If God cannot play dice with the universe, perhaps demons can? And where do demons fit into the theory of a loving God?
            Ah, well, I cannot say as I am any closer to TRUTH that I was when I was 14, but it has been interesting.


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* or vice versa