In praise of our “property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.”
By Maria Popova
We know that life is the self-correcting mechanism for error — as much in its evolutionary history as in its existential reality. And yet we are living our lives under the tyranny of perfection, as if all the right answers await us at the end of some vector we must follow infallibly until we arrive at the ultimate ideal. But the truth is that we simply don’t know — we don’t know where life ultimately leads, we don’t know what we want or what to want, and we don’t really know ourselves. It is by erring again and again that we find the shape of the path, by tripping again and again that we learn to walk it. Along the way, the answers emerge not before us but in us.
With an eye to the advances in so-called artificial intelligence that our machines made in a blink of evolutionary time — the fruition of Samuel Butler’s prescient Victorian prophecy of the emergency of a new “mechanical kingdom” of life — Thomas writes:
A good computer can think clearly and quickly, enough to beat you at chess, and some of them have even been programmed to write obscure verse. They can do anything we can do, and more besides.
An epoch before ChatGPT, he adds:
As extensions of the human brain, they have been constructed with the same property of error, spontaneous, uncontrolled, and rich in possibilities.
Rather than measuring the merit of our machines the punitive way we measure our own — by fidelity to some ideal of perfection — Thomas argues that this capacity for error is the supreme gift of the mind, of the more-than-machine we live inside, capable of surprising itself and capable, therefore, of glorious deviations from course, into new vistas of possibility:
Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.
We learn, as we say, by “trial and error.” Why do we always say that? Why not “trial and rightness” or “trial and triumph”? The old phrase puts it that way because that is, in real life, the way it is done.
This generative possibility of being wrong is by definition a function of the friction around being right — contention is the crucible of creation, within us and between us. (The great writer and jazz scholar Albert Murray called this creative friction “antagonistic cooperation.”) Thomas observes:
Whenever new kinds of thinking are about to be accomplished, or new varieties of music, there has to be an argument beforehand. With two sides debating in the same mind, haranguing, there is an amiable understanding that one is right and the other wrong. Sooner or later the thing is settled, but there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides, and the argument. The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.
The possibility of wrong choices is itself an assurance of multiple options — a multiplicity that is always our best bet for creative paths forward that transcend the blockages of the past. Thomas writes:
We are at our human finest, dancing with our minds, when there are more choices than two. Sometimes there are ten, even twenty different ways to go, all but one bound to be wrong, and the richness of selection in such situations can lift us onto totally new ground. This process is called exploration and is based on human fallibility. If we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made, instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurons that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.
In a sentiment that applies as much to our personal existential evolution as to the collective creative challenge of abating climate change, he adds:
What we need, then, for moving ahead, is a set of wrong alternatives much longer and more interesting than the short list of mistaken courses that any of us can think up right now… If it is a big enough mistake, we could find ourselves on a new level, stunned, out in the clear, ready to move again.
“A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used.”
By Maria Popova
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin bellowed in his advice on writing. “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
There is a reason we call our creative endowments gifts — they come to us unbidden from an impartial universe, dealt by the unfeeling hand of chance. The degree to which we are able to rise to our gifts, the passionate doggedness with which we show up for them day in and day out, is what transmutes talent into greatness. It is the responsibility that earns us the right of our own creative force.
With an eye to a young writer she was mentoring, Sarton reflects:
One must believe in one’s talent to take the long hard push and pull ahead, but a talent is like a plant… It may simply wither if it is not given enough food, sun, tender care. And to give it those things means working at it every day.
A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used. Closing the gap between expectation and reality can be painful, but it has to be done sooner or later. The fact is that millions of young people would like to write, but what they dream of is the published book, often skipping over the months and years of very hard work necessary to achieve that end — all that, and luck too. We tend to forget about luck.
From peacocks to penguins, a winged menagerie of wonder.
By Maria Popova
“How can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?” wrote William Blake, who lived in the golden age of the cage as entertainment. Zoos were new and exciting, and people readily overlooked their cruelty to slake their curiosity about creatures from faraway lands. But even so, zoos held only a tiny fraction of the dazzling variousness of the animal kingdom — in the age before photography, before easy global travel, the average person encountered the wondrous strangeness of animals not in the cage but on the page.
In the 1820s, a French natural history encyclopedia titled La Galerie de Oiseaux set out to bring to European eyes the most exquisite birds of North America, many of them now endangered, some extinct. Radiating from the consummate illustrations is the quiet dignity of these bright emissaries of our planet’s evolutionary history — feathered inheritors of the dinosaurs, winged with a kaleidoscope of joy.
A largehearted invitation to “stand on the precipice between the known and the unknown, without fear, without anxiety, but instead with awe and wonder at this strange and beautiful cosmos we find ourselves in.”
By Maria Popova
“That is happiness,” Willa Cather wrote, “to be dissolved into something complete and great.” We have many names for that dissolution, all revolving around some sense of spirituality and they all involving what Iris Murdoch so splendidly termed “unselfing” — experiences, most often furnished by art, music, and nature, that allow us to “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.”
At the heart of both our spirituality and our science lies this eternal yearning to know the world as it really is — a yearning with an infinite vector, pointing always just past the horizon of our knowledge, anchored always in the most elemental nature of the human animal: our curiosity, our restlessness, our hunger for truth and transcendence.
And yet the reflex of selfing, which stands so often between us and elemental truth, between us and transcendence, is hard-wired in our physiology — our entire experience of reality is lensed through our individual consciousness, housed in the brain and tendrilled through the body. Coursing through our nervous system as electrical signals beckoning to neurons are the tremors of falling in love and the anguish of grief, all of our feelings meted out by charged particles moving at eighty feet per second. The stuff of poetry and the stuff of dreams, all a particulate cloud of coruscating matter.
In The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science (public library), the poetic physicist Alan Lightman sets out to illuminate how these atomic constellations can be capable of such exultant spiritual experiences, aglow with such shimmering feelings. From the prescient atomic materialism of Lucretius to Maxwell’s equations, from the poems of Emily Dickinson to the synchronized firing of neurons in recognizing a loved one’s face, from the Hindu concept of darshan — the beholding of a deity or sacred object — to the cosmic wonders we have beheld through the “oracle eye” of our majestic space telescopes, he argues that spiritual experiences “are as natural as hunger or love or desire, given a brain of sufficient complexity.” Radiating from the millennia-wide inquiry is a revelation about how mere atoms and molecules can give rise to the very persuasive experience of a self, of a soul, of something that feels so vast and complex and magnificently irreducible to matter.
I’m a scientist and have always had a scientific view of the world — by which I mean that the universe is made of material stuff, and only material stuff, and that stuff is governed by a small number of fundamental laws. Every phenomenon has a cause, which originates in the physical universe. I’m a materialist. Not in the sense of seeking happiness in cars and nice clothes, but in the literal sense of the word: the belief that everything is made out of atoms and molecules, and nothing more. Yet, I have transcendent experiences. I communed with two ospreys that summer in Maine. I have feelings of being part of things larger than myself. I have a sense of connection to other people and to the world of living things, even to the stars. I have a sense of beauty. I have experiences of awe. And I’ve had transporting creative moments.
The aggregate of these very different types of experiences, echoes of which reverberate through every human life, is what he terms “spirituality” — a notion he nests inside the paradox of materiality and irreducibility:
I believe that the spiritual experiences we have can arise from atoms and molecules. At the same time, some of these experiences, and certainly their very personal and subjective nature, cannot be fully understood in terms of atoms and molecules. I believe in the laws of chemistry and biology and physics — in fact, as a scientist I much admire those laws — but I don’t think they capture, or can capture, the first-person experience of making eye contact with wild animals and similar transcendent moments. Some human experiences are simply not reducible to zeros and ones.
Therein lies the paradox — given that “all mental sensations are rooted in the material neurons of the nervous system and the electrical and chemical interactions between them,” how can this inescapable materiality wing us with such feelings of spirituality?
He gives a radiant answer in an orientation he calls “spiritual materialism” — the idea that even with a lucid understanding of how nature works, and how we work as material miniatures of nature’s laws, we are capable of transcendent experiences arising from the dazzling tessellation of atoms we call consciousness. Those experiences contour our highest humanity: our investment in living a moral life and stewarding the happiness of others, our capacity for awe and wonder, our sensitivity to beauty.
Recounting his own earliest memory of a spiritual experience as a child enchanted with the scientific method, he writes:
Although as a child I developed a scientific view of the world, I also understood that not all things were subject to quantitative analysis… I was about nine years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis, Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away. Suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a great chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant. A speck in a huge universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence — a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once… Despite the dismal feeling that the universe didn’t care a whit about me, I did feel connected to something far larger than myself.
Again and again, he returns to this feeling of connection to something beyond the self as the crucible of our transcendent experiences and the beating heart of everything we call spirituality:
A common feature of all aspects of spirituality is a loss of self, a letting go, a willingness to embrace something outside of ourselves, a willingness to listen rather than talk, a recognition that we are small and the cosmos is large.
And yet this too is a psychological paradox rooted in our physiology:
Most transcendent experiences are completely ego-free. In the moment, we lose track of time and space, we lose track of our bodies, we lose track of our selves. We dissolve. And yet… spirituality emerges from consciousness and the material brain. And the paramount signature of consciousness is a sense of self, an “I-ness” distinct from the rest of the cosmos. Thus, curiously, a thing centered on self creates a thing absent of self.
More self, less connection to the larger world.
Since the dawn of our species, myths and religions have tried to resolve this paradox with the concept of the soul — a vessel of I-ness that exists beyond the material realm, often conceived of as a kind of supra-energy. And yet despite the long cultural and theological history of belief in an immaterial soul, in reality all energy is accounted for by the forces of nature and their descriptive equations. He considers how our mortality — the entropic fate of all matter, the antipode of the myth of the immortal soul — is the true crucible of our connection to each other and the immensity beyond us, the wellspring of all of our creativity:
For me, the notion that our atoms were once part of other people and will again become part of other people after we die provides a meaningful connectedness between us and the rest of humanity, future and past.
Our inescapable death may be the single most powerful fact of our brief existence in this strange cosmos where we find ourselves. Indeed, one could argue that much of our thinking, our view of the world, our artistic expression, and our religious beliefs involve coming to terms with this fundamental fact.
The fact of our death is also what binds us to all life, stretching all the way back to the Big Bang, reminding us of the borrowed stardust that we are:
If you could tag each of the atoms in your body and follow them backward in time, through the air that you breathed during your life, through the food that you ate, back through the geological history of the Earth, through the ancient seas and soil, back to the formation of the Earth out of the solar nebular cloud, and then out into interstellar space, you could trace each of your atoms, those exact atoms, to particular massive stars in the past of our galaxy. At the end of their lifetimes, those stars exploded and spewed out their newly forged atoms into space, later to condense into planets and oceans and plants and your body at this moment.
Drawing on his splendid earlier writings about what actually happens when we die, he projects this atomic tagging forward into a future in which his I-ness is no more:
The atoms in my body will remain, only they will be scattered about. Those atoms will not know where they came from, but they will have been mine. Some of them will once have been part of the memory of my mother dancing the bossa nova. Some will once have been part of the memory of the vinegary smell of my first apartment. Some will once have been part of my hand. If I could label each of my atoms at this moment, imprint each with my Social Security number, someone could follow them for the next thousand years as they floated in air, mixed with the soil, became parts of particular plants and trees, dissolved in the ocean, and then floated again to the air. And some will undoubtedly become parts of other people, particular people. So, we are literally connected to the stars, and we are literally connected to future generations of people. In this way, even in a material universe, we are connected to all things future and past.