Departments

Theories

I look at the sky and see nuclear furnaces and transcendental distance. I look at an apple and see molecules, atoms, quanta of energy and motion. I look at a bird and see evolution, metabolism, aerodynamics. Yet looking at the same things others have seen a sphere of fixed stars, an apple-substance, and upholding angels. Some wit observed of the Ptolemaic cosmos: “If they had been right, what would the world have looked like?” The answer, of course, is that without a telescope it would look the same. Most experience is theory-neutral; we can get by believing almost anything about inner workings and ultimate origins. Even in the part of experience that science enables, people can get by without seeing scientifically. (I recall the moment of horror when I was learning to drive and realized there were people with driver’s licenses and Aristotelian intuitions about motion.)

Thus I try from time to time to put on wrong theories. I try to see Ptolemy’s sky spin or Newton’s sky tick, to see elemental matter with Aristotle or vortical matter with Descartes – to grasp and hold the view as long as I can. It interests me that this can be done at all, but properly the interest is in the consequences. The longer I can hold the view, the more I accommodate it. I feel the possibility of otherwise unknown moods; I feel a derangement in my scale of values; I feel a shift in my physical bearing – somehow how much of the universe is above my head matters to how I hold it; somehow the composition of dirt matters to how I stand on it.

The same life, the same world, but in a different key: the names, the patterns, the movements are the same, yet the overall effect is different. I wonder if this was what it was like to live through Einstein. I think of Feynman’s melancholy observation that science is not an infinite project, that it is at least doomed to run out of nontrivia to discover. I think of the commonplace that schools in art and philosophy sometimes end simply because they are too developed, because they require too much time to catch up with, foreclose too many possibilities. But there is no such escape from truth.