THE HARD PROBLEM OF POETRY

Today I’m going to interview philosopher Philip Goff about his book Galileo’s Error, for Words on a Wire, to air in our 11th season in the Fall 2021. 

It’s about the Hard Problem of consciousness, which is the question of how a physical system, the body, can create conscious experience, or qualia, like the taste of a carne asada burrito, or that first glimpse into the eyes of your lover. 

Scientists have three major solutions to the Hard Problem, one of which is Duality, that the mind and the brain are separate entities. In this theory, consciousness may be correlated to brain activity, but it’s separate from the material brain. We have a soul, if you will. We are eternal beings, or at the very least connected to the Eternal, through our consiousness. 

This is the belief held by most people and rejected by most scientists.

Scientists hate duality. 

They want a grand unified Theory of Everything. 

The two other approaches either say that consciousness doesn’t exist at all (Materialism) or that consciousness is a fundamental element of the universe (Panpsychism), as fundamental to the workings of reality as space and time and matter. (I like this idea and will play with the metaphors in future musings)

The Hard Problem will not be easily solved, but I’ve noticed a lot of physicists, who speak on the level of math, are getting into neuroscience these days, perhaps to escape the academic myopia that tends to pop up in science departments throughout history. I’m not saying they have to beware of string theory Nazis or whatever is going on in their department, just that there is solid evidence that even science departments can be so subjective as to ostracize those seeking unconventional explanations that don’t conform with popular theories. That’s all I’m saying.

Whether or not it has anything to do with the physicists, neuroscience is discovering new mathematical descriptions of brain activity and correlations with consciousness. 

They can brilliantly express equations that depict brain activity during conscious experience, but they cannot explain WHY brain activity produces my experience of biting into that juicy carne asada burrito.  

They can’t explain what I, Daniel Chacón, or you, are experiencing right now, and why. 

This hard problem is to  neuroscience what the unity problem is to physicists, uniting relativity with quantum theory. 

Goff writes, “We’re still waiting for the Newton of consciousness to produce the simple equation that will capture the connection between body and mind. “

When it comes to who we are, science has not been able to help us answer that question, at least not yet. 

Scientists can explain HOW we are this way, but not WHY.  

Goff claims that Galileo, who was the first one to establish math as the language of science, never intended to describe the quality of experience, but rather the quantitative experience of things.

How things behave, not why.

How a carne asada burrito behaves in relation to other matter and space and time, but not the intrinsic nature of a delicious burrito. Or taco for that matter.

(By stating burrito, you can tell a lot about me, that I’m a Chicanx person, as we may favor burritos over the tacos that might be the first choice of our Mexicanx neighbors. )

The problem with scientists trying to explain qualia is that they don’t have the language for it. What is the mathematical equation for my experience of biting into a juicy mango?

Or for that matter what is the equation that describes my intrinsic nature?

For that you need the philosopher.

For that you need the poet.

Science and Storytelling

Some students in my Writer and The Brain class turned me on to The Storytelling Animal by Johnathan Gottschall, which I am halfway through and am loving. 

Here’s a great quote:

“From Science, I argue, can help us make sense of storytelling. But some say that science is a grand story (albeit with hypothesis testing) that emerges from our need to make sense of the world. The storylike character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe. . .”

And this is what I am trying to say with The Poet and the Mind-Brain :

Theoretical branches of science, found mostly in the unification problem in physics and the hard problem in neuroscience seek to tell two of the most fundamental stories humans need to hear, how did it all begin, and who am I?

This is why writers are like scientists. 

These are the two stories that impel us to write, albeit articulated differently according to the writer.  

Instead of wondering how the universe began, the poet might wonder why does my heart feel so bad? Or why does the school bus stopping on the corner under the oak tree make me want to cry?

I would argue poetic details are microcosms of the two fundamental stories we seek to understand. 

Poets matter, because we seek to know the unknowable, and we will never stop until we find that ineffable elegant equation that says it all. 

EVERY GOOD POEM CREATES AN ANGEL

Almost every day, at least several times a week, I ask myself large, trite questions like a stoned teenager discovering philosophy for the first time.  I ask myself, Why are we here?

Do I have an eternal soul?

These are questions which mystics and physicists explore, and it is an exhilarating activity that often leads you to the Thinker’s High .

In The God Particle, Lederman writes about the moments all physicists experience when they explore the big questions, but in the quote below, I took out the word “physicist” and replaced it with poet, but in italics, so you know that it’s me.

The life of a poet is filled with anxiety, pain, hardship, tension, attacks of hopelessness, depression, and discouragement. But these are punctuated by flashes of exhilaration, laughter, joy, and exultation. These epiphanies come at unpredictable times. Often they are generated simply by the sudden understanding of something new and important, something beautiful, that no one else has revealed.

Asking these large questions, as silly as it may seem, is something great writers do consciously or unconsciously, and their poems and stories are like elegant equations.

Like scientists, writers want to express reality.

We want to write a haiku so intense that it will transform the reader like Borges’ Aleph into all points of space and time at once. You will get a glimpse.

I love what haikus can do to you, transform you to another space and time. They bring you there –for a flash!–then bring you back.

In my opinion, below are the two most elegant Haikus ever written:

In the ancient pond

A frog jumps into

The sound of water

And:

E=MC2

Imagine a haiku that brings you everywhere in space-time at once, all places and moments .

The more Reality there is in a work, that is, the ability to transcend space-time, the more beautiful the experience of the poem.

As waste of the time it may seem, asking big questions may help a writer in moments of creativity to enter into other realms of the imagination.

And imagination is an entrance into other universes. Imagination is our wormhole into places not rooted in our experience in time and space, but which may very well allow us to glimpse the thoughts of God. 

The Talmud says every good deed creates an angel.

I believe every good poem creates an angel, too, because its elegant use of language releases intense spiritual, intellectual, and emotional energy into the mind of the reader.

But beware, because if every good poem creates an angel, does every bad poem create a demon?

Probably every good poem makes an angel and a demon, and the fight they have is reflected in the work as tension.

Every good poem comes from questions that cannot be reconciled.

Why are we here?

What is the meaning of life?

I think it’s important to understand that if a writer sets out to write a poem about the meaning of life, it won’t be a very good poem. The poem most likely won’t create any demons; rather it’ll make mischievous little imps who will irritate the person reading the poem.

Do I contradict myself?

No.

I’m not saying a writer should set out to write a poem about the big questions, but I am saying that everything we experience on a visceral, emotional, and intellectual level has its roots in questions that can never be answered but that we cannot live without pondering. And it would be well for the writer to take time just to think about the big things, the corny questions, What is my purpose? Who created us? Who has the best burritos in El Paso ?

These questions, pondered and played with while you’re taking a walk, while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store with your device firmly shoved into your pocket or purse, are fun questions to imagine. They can lead your mind away from ordinary thinking.

And like a stoned teenager asking himself the big questions, the answers you imagine might even make you giggle.

Other people in line at the grocery store might look at you funny, but who cares?

A Poet, A Neuroscientist, and a Witch Walks Into Bar. . .

Bartender puts down a single napkin and asks her, What can I get you?

Get it?

The title isn’t a grammatical error, the subject and verb agree, because the poet who walks into the bar  –I picture someone badass like Natalie Scenters-Zapico, confident, meeting up with other poets for dinner and drinks during AWP—is also the scientist and the witch. 

Maybe in some ways, or like the poet Andrés Montoya used to tease me for saying, on some levels all poets are scientists and practice magick (why a k?). 

Poets are like scientists (on some level they are scientists) because they have a curiosity about how things work, especially the brain-mind, what motivates people, how they feel, see, taste and connect ideas in meaningful ways. The best poets seem to soak their feet into the intellectual waters of sundry subjects. Toni Morrison dipped into the Nag Hammadi, which are beautifully creative texts reinforcing the gnostic point of view of God and Reality. Poe studied physics. Borges studied Kabbalah. Pizarnik studied philosophy.

Poets are neuroscientists.

Poets are witches.

But first, let me define what I mean by “Poet.”

I remember having a conversation with my colleague, the poet and translator Rosa Alcalá. 

She told me it irritates her when people write emails addressing “poets and writers.”  

Rosa is a working-class Latina from Paterson, New Jersey, and when she’s defending a position she sometimes switches into street mode, the don’t-fuck-with-me nod of the head. 

She tells me, Are they saying I’m not a writer? How are poets not writers?

I agree, and ever since our conversation I rarely make the distinction between poets and writers.

We are one.

By poet I don’t mean only those who write verse. I mean all creative writers.

Everyone knows that there was a time in our human story when narratives were told only in verse, and verse was used only to tell stories, but somewhere along the plot-line of humanity, what God had put together –the storyteller and the poet — were torn asunder. 

It was not a natural or inevitable split, so it makes sense that by poets we can mean all creative writers, poets, fiction writers, memoirists.

We’re all poets. All creative writers, all genres. Poets.

(By the way, what is the collective noun for poets?? You have a murder of crows, an army of ants, perhaps a star of poets?)

So a poet is a writer. 

The term neuroscientist, as it appears in the joke, refers to scientists in general, to the methods and the value system, especially those sciences involved in the quest to unite all of reality, such as physics and studies of the mind-brain duality. 

Scientists seek to unite, to offer one elegant equation about reality, the universe, the way things work.  

They say that the holy grail of physics is how Quantum mechanics, the study of the subatomic world of electrons and strange quarks can have the same laws as the theories of relativity, spacetime and the planets and the universe. 

The two areas of science don’t agree, and if someone can come up with a ToE, something Einstein tried but failed at most of his adult life, they will know the thoughts of god.

That’s one of the most famous quotes in all physics, Einstein saying, I want to know the thoughts of God. Everything else is detail.

The scientist who walks into this bar, who is also a poet, is the kind of scientist that believes reality can be explained through math, i.e. language, using the most elegant equation. A haiku of reality such as

E=MC2

Ever since Galileo math has been the language of science, and if it cannot be expressed in math, it is not science, it’s philosophy, metaphysics. What makes neuroscience fun to follow is how math is being used to explain consciousness, our behavior, our unpredictability, the mystery of our experiences. 

A book I highly recommend, readable for nonscientists like me is The Forgetting Machine by Rodrigo Quian Quíroga. 

He created a mathematical model of neuronal activity and can pinpoint with precision how neurons fire when a concept is brought up in the mind, like Jennifer Aniston. 

He found that there is a Jennifer Aniston neuron in your brain, and it serves only to represent her and what she means to you, and every time it fires, he can chart — again with mathematical precision — what other neurons will fire as a result. 

He’s from Argentina, Buenos Aires, having studied physics, but like a lot of neuroscientists today, he became interested in the brain. 

Since his emphasis is memory, he has found a connection with Borges and has written a book about him and memory, which I’ve yet to read, but I’ve ordered it and will get back to you on what I think.

So a poet is a neuroscientist.

What about the witch?

Why are poets witches?

In a nutshell:

When we follow language into imaginary places and possibilities, we travel outside of our bodies, like soul travel. We often enter into the zone, where matter and spacetime disappear. This is well known among writers. 

In other language, we enter into the astral plain, where we’re met with guides (voices) and demons (rhythms and incantation) and we are shown entirely new worlds in which anything can happen.  

Poets travel the various levels of reality in our imagination, and the more we are willing to allow language to lead us into alternate universes, the more we are able to see beyond the ordinary. This is why some fundamental Christian sects claim that free writing is evil, because you’re channeling demons, or more accurately daemons. Muses. Duende.

Do you know how long it could take practitioners of esoteric knowledge to enter into some of the realms that poets have visited?

Poets are witches.

Water is Lazy Or, Why You Always End up With Jerks

heart-espresso

I love the boy who made my coffee.

I don’t know his name, and I only saw him once in a London café that I’ll probably never be able to find again, but I’ll never forget him.

I don’t remember what he looks like, but I remember what he said to me.

All week before I had encountered him, I was reading about special relativity for for dummies and it became clear to me that Intuition can be great, that it can often lead you to optimal paths in life, but what is intuitive about nature is not always true.

Intuition cannot describe reality.

A significant example is what Galileo discovered when he dropped two balls of differing weights off the Tower of Pisa. Everyone thought that the heavier ball would reach the ground first.

It makes sense.

It’s intuitive. If you drop a big, heavy rock and you drop a pencil, intuition tells you that the rock would hit the ground first.

Galileo's falling bodies experiment

But, of course, intuition is wrong.

They will hit the ground at the same time. The bigger they are the harder they may fall, but they don’t fall first.

When the first people landed on the moon, they tested this theory with a metal hammer and a feather, because on the moon there would be no wind resistance for the feather, just the gravitational and inertial masses of the object. Sure enough, the hammer and the feather hit the ground at the exact same time.

Here’s a short video of that experiment:

Intuition tells you that if you threw a ball as hard as you could across a field,  it would take longer to reach the ground than if you simply opened your hand and dropped it. But they will hit the ground at the same time.

That week in London I was re-reading some of physics texts, and I saw that Newton punked our intuition by equating gravitational mass and inertial mass.

Easy enough, yes?

But I never understood this idea. I barely graduated with my BA, because of the general math requirement.

Inertia

I basically know (I think) what gravitational mass is, the mass of an object that will cause it to fall from the Tower of Pisa, yes?

If you drop a rock to the ground, it will be attracted to the larger object, the earth. Small bodies are attracted to larger bodies. The earth is attracted to the sun and orbits the sun, not the other way around.

Here’s some disappointing news to poets:

The sun never sets.

There is only the earth making another revolution around the sun.

Many of the metaphors of physics are accessible to lay people, but inertial mass I couldn’t quite grasp.

Until I met the barista I love.

I went in to order a coffee, which as you know in Europe generally means an espresso, and the barista was a young man in his 20s.

hipster barista
This isn’t really him, just a stock image I found on google image search 🙂 I don’t remember what he looks like.

I imagine he was hip-looking, maybe an earring, a beard, but I remember watching him pack the coffee powder into the metal cup. He smashed it down and down. Packed it good.

packing coffee

Wow, I said, you’re really making sure that the grounds are packed in there.

Yeah, he said, water is lazy.

What?

Water is lazy. If you don’t pack it in there it’ll just find the easiest way to make it through the grounds, and the cup won’t be as pure.

That’s it! That’s inertia!

In Euclidean geometry a geodesic is the shortest and straightest line between two points. Apparently it gets more complex when you’re talking about non-Euclidean geometry of space-time, but for our purposes, it is basically how a body under the influence of a force will find the easiest way to travel.

Bertrand Russell called this “the law of cosmic laziness.”

The apple falls from the tree, straight down to the ground, because it’s too lazy to take any other route. With the earth spinning and the universe expanding faster than the speed of light, why doesn’t the apple go sideways around the earth or up unto the stars? It would be logical to expect the apple to fall away from the tree, since the earth is moving, but it falls straight down, the easiest path to recover its inertia.

Apple

Why doesn’t the apple fall far from the tree?

Because it’s easier and shorter to give in to the earth’s gravitational pull and fall straight down on the head of some poor sap sitting underneath the tree than it is to fly off to a destiny of its own choosing.

All objects, including our bodies, are moving through space-time.

Einstein showed us that there is no such thing as space.

There is no such thing as time.

There is only space-time.

One without the other is impossible.

Space is meaningless without time.

If I said, OK, let’s meet at the big rock in the middle of the field, you would understand me.

But you would probably never find me.

I might go there at midnight, under the light of the moon, whereas you might go at 3 PM, under the blazing sun.

Space without time is meaningless.

And time without space is meaningless.

I’ll be some place in five minutes! I say. Hope to see you.

Great, you say. Where will you be?

There is only space-time, and we are moving through it at more or less a constant  velocity.

We have an initial framework, which frames our sense of reality depending on how fast we move through space-time.

If we aren’t moving much through space, like we’re sitting in an armchair with a beer, we are still moving through time at a constant velocity.

lazy dog

That inertia will remain constant unless a force is acted upon us.

Before the apple even falls from the tree, it is moving through space-time at a constant velocity, and now that it is detached from the tree, it doesn’t want to work. It wants to remain at the same velocity.

So it takes the shortest possible path it can.

Straight down.

The easiest path.

The Apple is lazy. And lazy means not wanting to work.

The reason why a heavy object falls at the same time as a lighter object is its resistance to a force acting upon it, that is, the big guy doesn’t want to work anymore than the little guy.

Not to get all Philip Levine on your ass, but let me say What Work Is:

What_work_is

Work happens when a force acts upon mass in such a way that it accelerates it through space-time.

That’s work.

Moving a massive object like a dead body across a floor with force is work.

When I became a college professor, my dad used to tease me. He’d say, “Boy, what you do ain’t real work!”

It wasn’t real work to him, because I wasn’t lifting heavy objects and moving them from one place to another.

But as a writer, I transfer creative energy from my mind to my fingers, which causes them to accelerate and type the words onto my laptop screen, and thus, writing is working.

The heavy sphere would rather say to Galileo, “Please don’t drop me!  I don’t want to work. I’m going to resist as much as possible, because I just want to kick up here on the tower with my homies.”

(I should tell of the day I spent in Pisa, at an outdoor café with a view of the Tower, how I ordered a long lunch, three hours, and went through two bottles of wine and then had an espresso. But it would take a lot of work to write about that, so I’m not going to do it just yet.)

The heavier sphere puts up resistance to gravity, the force that wants it to work, and because it’s heavier than the lighter object, it puts up more resistance than then lighter one.

Newtonian physics argues that the more gravitational mass there is to an object, the stronger the inertia, that is, the objects desire to stay at a constant velocity.

Here’s the elegant formula:

f=ma

(I think. Like I said, I don’t understand the equations, but I get that they are elegant, that they say a lot in pithy language, mathematical haikus.)

When a heavy object falls , it doesn’t want to change velocity, so its inertial mass will resist the fall, and because it’s heavy, its inertial mass is stronger than the light object’s inertial mass.

A lighter object does not have as much resistance, because it’s not as heavy, and the pull of gravity acts on it more effectively. The inertia and the force equal out, and they hit the ground at the same time.

I’m not a scientist, so I write none of this with authority. I’m just trying to understand the basic concept of inertia and gravity. Just for fun.

So when this London barista told me that water is lazy, a light went on in my head.

Of course, you have to pack the coffee in the espresso maker!

Of course you do!

If you didn’t pack it tight, the water would take the easiest path through the grounds.

water in coffee

It would swirl in between the loose coffee grounds, wherever is the least resistance to change.

But if the barista packs it in hard, the water has no choice but to force its way through the ground into my cup, thus making a more pure coffee.

Water is lazy.

But how does this apply to us? How does this apply to the reason why we always end up with jerks?

I believe:

If a system like physics attempts to describe reality, we should be able to extract the metaphors and apply them to any system’s attempt to describe reality.

Like Blake says, All religions are the same.

A system that describes Reality, Truth, and the Theory of Everything needs metaphor in order to be understood. If those metaphors are close to describing something True, they should describe concepts outside of that metaphorical system.

The Bible teaches, You reap what you sow. The Buddhists might use metaphors around karma. Physicists might say how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Different metaphors describe the same Truth.

newton every action

Assume we all have an inertial framework, that is, we move through time and space more or less at a constant velocity, only speeding up when there is a force acting upon us.

We wake up in the morning, have coffee, go to work, feed the kids, whatever it is we do, and we get to the point of inertia where we just repeat what we do over and over again at the same speed. We become comfortable with this.

And this could be the case even psychologically, or mentally, the way we think. Many of us do not think outside of our framework, we do not think outside of the reality that we have accepted.

As you age, one of the ways to lose the agility of your brain is to quit reading, or not to read it all, or not to challenge yourself with new, mental work. We want to stay where we are.

And, here’s the kicker:

If you always end up with jerks, that’s why you always end up with jerks.

If we are used to what we have experienced, whether conscious it or not, whether the apple is aware of it or not, we want to take the easiest path, we want to stay within our inertial framework.

One’s inertial frame work seems to determine one’s sense of reality, including the field in which we live, time and space.

If I am on a train moving through the landscape close to the speed of light, and there are no windows indicating that I am moving and there is no acceleration, my inertial framework tells me I am at rest.

If you were standing on the train station platform watching my train pass, your framework tells you that I am moving very quickly and you are at rest.

Our inertial frameworks provide us with our sense of reality and stability.

If we are at a party, and there are many people in the room, when the door opens and a jerk walks in, our initial framework will attract us to that jerk, because it’s the easiest path. We don’t need to work, we just need to repeat or to stay at a constant velocity where we are emotionally and spiritually.

I’m not talking about the brain, the thought, which will tells us we DON’T want to meet another jerk. The brain is an organ, and although we put a lot of value upon it as humans, it’s still part of our physiology, still under the laws of physics, and sometimes the brain is lazy and helps us to remain inert and tells us, This one will be different.

We keep ending up with jerks because it is the easiest path, it is the psychological geodesic.

We keep repeating the same mistakes, even when we complain about them, even when we feel guilty, or feel worthless, and those feelings of guilt and worthlessness become part of our inertial framework, our reality, and that’s where we will stay, unless there is a force that acts upon us.

We resist anything else. We are like a falling object, the heavier our thoughts and emotions and those things that enslave us, the more we resist the change, the force.

But we are fortunate to be humans, because we have the ability to invite forces into our lives!

We can allow forces us to move away from our inertial framework and to make decisions that are more optimal, to stay away from the jerks.

And many amazing people that I know live their lives like this, writers, teachers, construction workers, all across the world people are using forces to get them to accelerate and deaccelerate.

There are synthetic forces such as drugs, but if we use them too often, they become part of our inertial framework, and we stay there for an even longer time. It takes tremendous force to move someone from an addictive framework.

What forces can we invite into our lives to accelerate us outside of our inertial framework?

Meditation.

Prayer.

To believe in something higher, to seek the ultimate source of energy, the great force, the Crown on the Tree of Life.

Meditation is good.

Exercise is good.

Exercise is using a kinetic force to make us work. It is work in addition to what we need to go about our daily lives. It challenges our inertial framework.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we invite forces into our lives every day.

There are always things in life that cause us to accelerate or deaccelerate, the death of a family member, the flu, a car accident, a department meeting.

boring meeting

These act on us and cause us to move differently, but the variations can be minimal.

And the more we are stuck within an inertial framework, the more these variations will just become a part of it, the predictable unpredictables of life.

Allow a force to act upon you that takes you out of your comfort zone.

Talk to people you would have never thought of talking to before.

Learn a new language.

Challenge yourself.

Find your force, and let the force be with you.