Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Blake v. Einstein (Commonplace Book)

"What is grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care." -- William Blake

"[If a physical theory cannot be explained to a child, it is probably worthless]." -- Albert Einstein

Obviously, different situations. One is poetic truth, one scientific. Plus, granted, you could argue that it is easier to explain something to a child than to an idiot, if you imagine the difference is that children are more open minded. And Einstein, not being a crazy prophet, tossed in the qualifier "probably". But if you only had to chose one to live by, which one would you go with? I can never decide and just go back and forth as the mood strikes me. Alternate Question: which quote covers your most recent mood.

[I cannot find the exact Albert Einstein quotation -- only a paraphrase. Let me know if you know it.]


Roger said...

I think these two quotations are based upon a fundamental difference in their ontolgies. Einstein, despite the fact that he developed the Special and General theories of relativity, ultimately believed in an underlying order to the cosmos that can be transparently represented through language. Blake, on the other hand, believed in the opacity of language--that our minds are infinitely dynamic and the job of the poet is to affect a transformation of consciousness with language. Language, for Blake, doesn't represent anything--on the other hand, it makes things happen.

Here's another quote from Blake which, while not directly contradicting what you quoted him as saying certainly complicates the scheme you set up and the interpretation I gave.

In his annotations to Thornton, Blake cites and responds to Samuel Johnson on the difficulty of Biblical exegesis:

["]The BIBLE is the most difficult book in the world to comprehend, nor can it be understood at all by the unlearned, except through the aid of CRITICAL and EXPLANATORY notes. . . ." Christ & his Apostles were Illiterate Men Caiphas Pilate & Herod were Learned. The Beauty of the Bible is that the most Ignorant & Simple Minds Understand it Best

So I just confused myself. I'd say I'm more of a poet than a scientist, yet there is also poetry in simplicity. And, for someone who developed probably one of the most complex theories in the history of science, I doubt Einstein was always letting children peer review his material.

Jason Powell said...

I have to go with the Blake one -- perhaps just because I'm a pompous ass. But also, earlier today someone posted to my blog and told me that she once tried to get into "Arrested Development" based on a friend's recommendation and didn't even crack a smile after watching three or four episodes.

I just feel like, surely the the fault is in her for not seeing the humor. The grandness was too obscure for her, you might say.

neilshyminsky said...

Another note on the quotes, this time in defense of Einstein. My guess is that this quote (or paraphrase) is in relation to quantum physics, which determined that subatomic particles are not bound to the rules of relativity and can do things that, in the coherent and rather intuitive Einsteinian model, simply shouldn't be possible. (And, naturally, Einstein despised quantum physics.) As well, the rules of quantum physics only apply at the subatomic level - for all intents and purposes, they do not affect our everyday lives in any way at all.

What Einstein is speaking against, then, is not complexity or obscurity, but embarking on a highly speculative physical science that doesn't seem to actually have any bearing on the physical world.

(Of course, I could be taking this quote out of context...)

Mitch said...

I have to side with Einstein just because I'm more familiar with him than Blake.

[On a cosmic level though, I think we need things that are both explicit AND grand. Also, one man's readily understandable thing is another's unknowable. For instance, TV shows like Pokemon AND Seinfeld would be interchangably unknowable or explicit for me and my 11 year old cousin.]

Also, these two statements reminded of a interesting "what would you do" scenario I read recently- if you could take a brain pill that made you 10% smarter, but made you appear 20% stupider (in all forms of expression- speech, writing, art,etc)would you do it? Would it be enough to be a genius in secret while the word dismissed you as an idiot?

Stephen said...

"It is by now proverbial that every proverb has its opposite. For every Time is money there is a Stop and smell the roses. When someone says You never stand in the same river twice someone else has already replied There is nothing new under the sun. In the mind's arithmetic, 1 plus -1 equals 2. Truths are not quantities but scripts: Become for a moment the mind in which this is true."

-- James Richardson, Vectors, aphorism #26

The Satrap said...

Some random, pedantic thoughts follow, boiling down pretty much to the notion that Blake and Einstein do in fact coexist quite well.

I don't know the exact context of Einstein's quote either, but I'd say that Einstein is making a generic comment on the evolution of scientific thinking or "paradigms", rather than providing an indictment of quantum mechanics which he criticised on other, more specific grounds.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the similarity between the properties of light and those of elastic waves in material bodies gave credit to the ether hypothesis: light would be interpreted as a vibratory process in an inert, elastic medium filling up literally all of space. Then along came Maxwell's synthesis of electric, magnetic and optical phenomena. The mechanical properties that were attributed to the ether became far more complicated than those of tangible solid bodies. The contrast between Maxwell's elegant laws and the clumsy mechanical models underlying them was clearly not satisfactory. After the Michelson-Morley experiment, the time was ripe for special relativity.

Another change of paradigms, the Copernican revolution, was ultimately required by the complexity needed to allow the Ptolemaic model to accommodate centuries of astronomic observation.

Einstein's statement would not only be normative, it would also have a strong "positive" component when seen against the backdrop of this other famous quote attributed to him, the one that goes "[t]he most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." Inasmuch as we observe that our intellectual and aesthetic instincts stand us in good stead when trying to come to grips with the universe, the fact that a paradigm starts to look too ramshackle and clunky is probably an indication that it has run its course.

On one level, Blake is referring to the whole esoteric/exoteric divide: the Work of spiritual advancement is not, should not be, accessible to the unprepared. But then again --given that the ageless myth of the Fall features so prominently in his cosmogony-- he would not be against the notion that one of the goals of this Work is the recovery of a measure of child-like "purity" and hence "openness" in Einstein's sense.

Blake would probably argue that the Einsteinian "mathematical" ideal of beauty i.e. elegance and terseness could become oppressive if foisted on all artistic activity. This could be related to the whole Brooks thing about the non-compressibility of art, life and experience. But I think that it is far more important that both men are arguing for intellectual audacity. Urizen's "slumbers of abstraction" stand in part for what we call "conventional wisdom" these days, for the oppression of Orc, for a kind of solipsism that certainly leads to an unnecessary complexity of thought.