We've lost track of life. But there is hope.
Einstein and ShakespeareSitting having a beerEinstein trying to figure out the number that adds up to thisShakespeare said, “Man it all starts with a kiss”Einstein is scratchingNumbers on his napkinShakespeare said, “Man, it’s just one and one make threeAh, that’s why it’s poetry”
“Quantitative judgements don’t apply.”
– Mr. Crouchback, from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy
We are obsessed with technology.
And we’ve lost track of life.
Drive in your car, go to the grocery store, attend a sporting event or concert and look around. Everyone is looking at their phone. And to be honest, so am I. Oh, maybe we are passing time surfing the internet or taking a “selfie” or texting a friend or looking for that light button to wave overhead during our favorite rock anthem. Maybe we are tweeting or posting on FaceBook or Instagram or SnapChat. Then again, maybe we are just making sure we have nothing in our teeth or in our nose. Regardless, we are on the phone. We are not conversing with our neighbor or looking at the world around us or simply getting lost in thought. We are enslaved by the constant stimulation of our favorite music, favorite website, favorite app or favorite social media black hole. We are lost like Narcissus in the black pool of an iPhone screen.
Even more, we are constantly convinced the technology is an unmitigated good. Just think, Siri can answer my questions. Alexa can follow my directions. Computers can lick our chess champions. Software can instantly spew forth the most arcane sports statistic. Websites can grant me instant news, weather or recipes. Video can correct the umpire with the keenest eye. And – imagine – robot dogs and artificially intelligent “companions” are being crafted to soothe the lonely.
What’s more is that we have started to convince ourselves that computers are a human’s gold standard. By using computers and thinking like computers (with an insatiable devotion to statistics and models and algorithms) we presume we will correct our human flaws. Think of the public perception of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the beginning of our involvement in Vietnam: he was the rock-jawed, slicked hair picture of efficiency, of brilliance, of dispassionate calculation. And he ended as the poster child for error.
But there is hope.
What we are slowly, grudgingly starting to realize is that hyper-mechanistic thinking that relies too much on theories, algorithms and models, and too little on common sense, intuition and experience is a recipe for error. Oh, that’s not to say that there isn’t error inherent in human sense. Of course there is. But there is also virtue in the accrued wisdom of a soldier, a doctor, a teacher or a mother who have seen a few things in their time and learned accordingly.
But the calculators, the statisticians, the subscribers to the orthodoxy of Scientism find the amorphous, ill-defined attributes of common sense, intuition and experience maddening. Why? Because they cannot box these seeming intangibles in. They find it impossible to pin them down, dissect them, study them and craft a fourteen step process that everybody should easily use. And so they should be dismissed. Curiously, when the scientific method is not designed well to study certain invaluable intangibles, the scientific method is not called into question, the intangibles are. But simply because these attributes are difficult to delimit and elucidate doesn’t make them invalid as sources of knowledge and tools of judgment. It simply makes them a bit more mysterious and a lot more extraordinary (again, infinitely galling to the disciples of Scientism).
There is something infinitely remarkable about human beings – the logic we possess, the emotions we experience, the epiphanies we arrive at and the biases that derail us – that make us so much more phenomenal than any machine could every be. It’s almost as if, in spite of our fallibility, we have the spark of the Divine in us.
Just consider, some human beings are capable of working out the most challenging problems of advanced calculus while others have written King Lear or The Divine Comedy. Better than any computer, we can detect the subtlety of sarcasm or sincerity in a human voice. More capably than Siri or Alexis, we can discern the quickly concealed catch in a person’s voice betraying grief or guilt. And more genuinely than any robot, can we offer or receive to one another true love, passion and devotion.
The inventor of the iPhone, Steve Jobs, made this observation,
Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.
Furthermore, literary editor Leon Wieseltier would add,
We have become a technologically addled society that is obsessed less with the question of whether something is true or false, or good or evil, and more with the question of how something works and what its consequences will be. The technological realm has been promoted as the very model of thought for human relations and all sorts of human activities. Our society has come to scorn what is called humanism or the humanities. And I think that is terrible thing, because there are many things about human life that cannot be quantified.
And as eminent historian Robert Conquest would note,
Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff tell us in their [book], The Modern Researcher, that the process of historical verification is “conducted on many planes, and its technique is not fixed. It relies on attention to detail, on common-sense reasoning, on a developed ‘feel’ for history and chronology, on familiarity with human behavior, and on ever enlarging stores of information.” And, they conclude, “No interesting or important question…can be settled without detailed knowledge, solid judgement, lively imagination and ability to think straight. What to do and how to go about it come with practice; to enumerate rules would be endless and of little use.” This is, in fact, the crux: that “judgement” is needed, that it is a delicate matter, and that no mechanical criteria for validating or rejecting evidence exist.
One of the most gripping scenes in the movie, Good Will Hunting, finds the Robin Williams, the deeply clear-eyed counselor, confronting Matt Damon, the cocky self-regarding young genius, over Damon’s snide, off-handed judgement of Williams and a painting in Williams’ office. It epitomizes that genius, however lofty and well-informed, can be shrill and stunted if not ennobled by bruising experience and hard-earned judgement. It is the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.
Sean (Robin Williams) [sitting on a bench in in front of a pond in park]: Thought about what you said to me the other day, about my painting. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me… fell into a deep peaceful sleep, and haven’t thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?Will (Matt Damon): No.Sean (Williams): You’re just a kid, you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talkin’ about.Will (Damon): Why thank you.Sean (Williams): It’s all right. You’ve never been out of Boston.Will (Damon): Nope.Sean (Williams): So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love, you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you… I don’t see an intelligent, confident man… I see a cocky, scared s–tless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my f–king life apart. You’re an orphan right?[Will nods]Sean (Williams): You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally… I don’t give a s–t about all that, because you know what, I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some f–king book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.
For the human experience to truly be human, Damon has to allow his genius to be tempered by the sage of experience. The logician must make room for the poet, reason must ally with faith, rationality must entertain mystery, Einstein must walk beside Shakespeare.
Perhaps, just a little more often, we should set down our phones and pick up a book, we should turn off our television and tune into the world around us, and we should relish our reason and revel in our mysteries.
Oh, it’s easier said than done. To be sure.
But it’s worth it.