Certain moments in a good story possess a quality that is logically very strange indeed, and that renders them often haunting and unforgettable. Consider Dorothea’s choice of Ladislaw as her lover in Middlemarch: the logic of fiction would dictate that Dorothea should pair up with Lydgate, who is a heavyweight like her, and if after reading the first half of the book we were to try to predict the outcome, this would probably be our choice. On the other hand, when she upsets our expectations we are on reflection not disappointed but deeply excited by the depth of what has happened: strangely, we now realize that Dorothea’s surprising choice was really inevitable all along, that it had to be that way; her originality, her tenderness, her St. Teresa-like sense of mastery could express itself no other way.
We get the same feeling when Edmund has his deathbed repentance in King Lear, and even more so when it turns out that his repentance, which would be the perfect deus ex machina to save Cordelia’s life, ends up with no apparent plot function at all: in fact it makes Cordelia’s death even more unexpected, arbitrary, and horrifying. Yet we recognize immediately the absolute Tightness of this reversal; it was inevitable all along.
One could cite dozens of other examples: the Odyssey is a compendium of them, Faulkner is a master at the art, and so is Tolstoy. In music the same thing happens: Mozart will often pile two or three twists of melodic or harmonic surprise upon each other, and yet in retrospect the structure of his piece will hold firm, perfectly braced; airy, yet as strong as adamant.
The peculiar thing about such moments is that by their unpredictability before the event combined with their retrodictability after it they radically defy the requirement that truth be independent of time; and yet they are by no means arbitrary or merely expedient—it is not as if the artist were irresponsibly flinging in extraneous incident or distorting the integrity of the work by arbitrary crowd-pleasing interventions. It was Plato who most clearly established the idea that truth cannot trim its sails with the winds of time, that two and two must equal four for all eternity, not just today, or on Wednesdays, or in the past but not the future. Certainly there are kinds of coherent truth for which Plato’s requirement of temporal indifference must hold. But he is perhaps wrong in implying’ that coherence and intelligibility—which are supreme virtues, else we could not even reason about such matters, and must come to blows—are only possible under conditions of time invariance. Edmund and Dorothea and Odysseus and Quentin Compson and Anna Karenina are coherent and intelligible—so much so that a lifetime is not enough to appreciate how much. But much of what they do has the peculiar capacity to alter the past in such a way as to make certain futures inevitable, when they were not so before.
We need, then, a new logic to talk about such actions, one that always has two senses—a strong sense, which applies retroactively, and a weak sense, which applies prospectively. Recent developments in Italian philosophy have produced the expression “weak thought,” which though it properly applies to the level of assertion and probability in a proposition, can be used here as well. Researchers in cognitive science, the philosophy of mathematics, and artificial intelligence have all come to recognize that the work of the human mind cannot be modeled without some kind of soft linkage between concepts that relies on large vague databases, partial resemblances, and relative probabilities of truth. But what we want are laminated words, whose one face is weak and whose other is strong, and a reasonably rule-governed way of using them.
In the Oriental martial arts there is a fine practical vocabulary of concepts for dealing with such matters. A karate expert will view his opponent with “soft eyes,” meaning that the attention is global rather than concentrated, and will achieve by this a decisive edge in speed over the opponent. But the martial arts vocabulary does not easily lend itself to philosophical speculation; and this essay is a kind of game or fiction in speculative philosophy. We can find in contemporary theoretical physics perhaps a more exactly defined set of terms: specifically, in John Archibald Wheeler’s notion of the strong and weak anthropic principles. What this essay will do is explore some of the implications of the anthropic principle(s) for a subject that, we will see, is in its essence bound up with time asymmetry: the nature of angels.
A simple experiment will illustrate one of the most mysterious phenomena in quantum mechanics. Take two polaroid sunglass lenses and hold them against the light, one behind the other. If they are aligned so that their axes of polarization are parallel with each other, the two lenses together will let almost as much light through as one lens alone. But if you rotate one lens so that the axes of polarization are at an angle, the amount of light getting through will diminish until, when the lenses are at 90Ã‚Â° to each other, no light gets through at all. A sunglass lens cannot bend the polarization of the light; all it can do is stop light that is vibrating in a north-south direction, say, and let light through that is vibrating in an east-west direction. Thus it makes perfect sense that the two lenses should together stop all the light, since all the directions in which light could vibrate involve some combination of north-south and eastwest.
The mystery appears if we place a third lens at about 45° between the two lenses that have already been set at 90° to each other. Common sense would suggest that to do so would be a little superfluous, because all the light has already been stopped, and total darkness cannot be further darkened. What actually happens, though, is this: light now starts passing through the three lenses, when it could not pass through two!
What does this mean? Quantum physics offers various explanations, all of which involve some deep and beautiful violation of common sense. One goes like this: a wave (or particle) of light before it reaches the lenses does not “know” what its polarization is, and the first lens forces the light to “make up its mind.” However, it only has to make up its mind about one of the axes of polarization, not any others. If the second lens it hits absolutely excludes what the first lens absolutely permitted (90°) then all light is stopped. This is proved by the fact that if the 45° lens is placed on either side of the pair of opposite lenses, and not between them, it cannot alleviate the darkness, because the unmediated contradiction still exists. But if the middle lens is at 45° to the others the light gets to make up its mind again, and by the time it reaches the third lens it has “forgotten” about the “decision” it was forced to make at the first lens; the light coming through the second lens is just light that has been through a northeast-southwest filter, and that is all it is. The third lens does not absolutely contradict the second, and thus about ¼ of the original light gets through.
But something very peculiar has happened to the nature of time in this account. Events and objects are constituted by the information that they exchange with other events and objects and with themselves; and the means by which that information gets exchanged are, as forms of light, subject to quantum uncertainty. Which means that when the light that tells us of events in the filament of a light bulb, or on the surface of the sun, is forced to declare the orientation of its vibration, then the nature of the light bulb and of the sun becomes retroactively a little more definite. Reality is, when unobserved, only approximate in its nature: it is a probability function or “wave function” specifying a number of possible states which it might assume if challenged, at which time the packet of uncertainty that constitutes a particle before it is measured is “collapsed”—forced retroactively to make up its mind. Why “retroactively”? Because light, and any other form of information, is limited in the speed of its propagation, and anything we observe is already in the past of the observing age.
Reality, then, depends partly on how we measure it. The two-lens system asks a different question of the world than the three-lens system, and thus the answer we get is different, and thus the reality of which we asked the question, and which is already in the past, must be different. Events do not occur in and of themselves, but exist in a kind of partnership with their observers. The “mighty world of eye and ear,” as Wordsworth puts it, is made up of “what we half perceive, and half create.”
Now this idea can be, and has often been, misinterpreted by those who through wishful thinking, or malicious mischief against the noble and simple authority of science, or a preference for the moral excitement of their own opinion over what is demonstrable, desire to discredit the possibility of reasonably sure knowledge. Hence the conclusion that some critics have drawn from a superficial study of quantum theory, that nature is incoherent, and dependent upon the ideological views of scientists, which in turn reflect the political system and its entrenched power and privilege, etc. And thus such abominations as “Jewish science” in the 30’s and “feminist science” now. The fallacy lies in the fact that the “observing” and “measuring” that collapses the wave function can be performed by other entities than human beings. A rock can collapse a photon’s wave function, too, and the universe had a definite being, though a simpler and cruder one, before human beings evolved. Thus the universe has been continually and cumulatively “making up its mind” through a consensus of exchange of information for 15 billion years. We are now an increasingly important part of that consensus, but as Lysenko learned when his Communist wheat died in Siberia, politics cannot resist a sufficiently negative vote by the inanimate public of the universe. By the time we observe most things that are larger than subatomic particles, they are already part of a healthy, functioning, mutually-supporting reality system, to be altered only if we know the fault lines of its construction and have the technology to pry them apart.
Let us revise our earlier formula about the partnership of events and their observers, and say that events and objects at least need to be registered as such by some other event or object that has the selective sensitivity to do so. Many events and objects can be registered by very crude “observers,” that need only be made of matter to do their job. Others, though—and here things get interesting—do need rather sophisticated observers; and there are many whose more complex aspects only come into existence at the call of such sophistication and sensitivity. Or let us put it this way—the observer is enfolded, in whatever way the observer is capable, in the being of the prior event that is observed. If the observer is crude, its report will form part of the brute consensus of matter; but if the observer is very sensitive, new properties will appear, and will really begin retroactively to exist, within the past event that is observed. Organized forms of matter are more sensitive, have finer resonances, than amorphous ones; living things, animals and plants and so on, are more sensitive than stones; and we are more sensitive than animals and plants, if only because our sensitivity includes theirs (and if it did not, we could not even argue about their relative merits).
It was Wheeler’s idea to apply this reasoning to the most important quantum event of all: the origin of the universe. In what sense was the origin of the universe a “quantum event”? The Big Bang theory, which best satisfies the evidence, requires that before it was 1⁄1020 second old the whole of the universe must have been packed into a space less than 1⁄1010 centimeters in radius, and this was all the space there was. It is precisely this realm of space and time within which quantum theory holds, and within which the role of the observer becomes important. We human beings are certainly the most obvious and sensitive observers of the origin—for instance, we are still picking up the background radiation of the Big Bang from all directions, a form of information about it that is direct and unmediated, if very old.
One of the greatest challenges to the cosmotologist is why the universe originated with the precise numerical constants that it did. These constants include the inverse square law by which the force of gravitation diminishes with distance, the speed of light, the electron volt constant, Planck’s constant, and so on. If these constants had been different in the slightest degree, no conceivable form of life could have evolved; indeed it is hard to see how even organized matter could have evolved. Why should we have had the astonishing luck to have got the exact origin that would bring about a universe which in the fullness of time would deliver us into existence?
Wheeler’s anthropic principle answers this riddle elegantly by suggesting that of all the possible origin-states for the universe, only one would bring about observers of it that could collapse its wave-function, ask it the question that would force it to declare a particular identity. Thus the universe originated as it did, with that particular set of constants, because it was since seen to do so. Any other hypothetical universe would remain only an eternal possibility. We, its observers, necessitated an observer-producing origin; and our question about it, like Parsifal’s, though long delayed, transforms the Waste Land of the original uncertainty into the rich and productive field of cosmic evolution.
However, this formulation of the idea is still a rather coarse one. There is, as we have already noted, a wide range of organisms between photons and human beings, of varying degrees of organization and complexity; from atoms, which are sensitive to electromagnetic and gravitational information, through crystals, which are also sensitive to vibration, heat, and’ so on, to animals, which can smell, see, and hear. All of these can act as observers and ask, in their own way, the fructifying question of Parsifal. Thus it would be more accurate to say that as more and more sensitive observers evolved, they respecified more and more exactly what the initial state of the universe must have been.
A later, more evolved and sophisticated organism collapses the wave function not only of the Big Bang but also of all prior organisms; either indirectly, through the Big Bang itself, or directly, because of its implicit observation of quantum events within those simpler, earlier beings. Thus the chordates had to be as they were to bring about vertebrate observers; vertebrates must be just so to occasion mammalian observers, mammals to bring about primates, and primates to be the ancestors of human beings. The fruit of any process is also an observer of it and thus a partial determiner of its nature.
Wheeler’s anthropic principle, thus generalized, now seems to fit nicely our requirement for an intelligible account of time asymmetry. As we look forward toward a putative event we need assume no more than the weak anthropic principle: whatever that event, it will syllogistically bring about a plausible future observer of it (or else there would be no evidence that it had happened). As we look backwards we can assume the strong anthropic principle: that earlier event was partly necessitated by the requirement that it help produce a universe in which we can look back at it. And the weak and strong principles are not isolated from each other, but share a strange seam across their backsides, so to speak, and form a kind of Janus, a sort of transitional January between the old year and the new. Through that semipermeable seam there is a leakage or tunneling of implication or entailment, just as the present moment conducts and mixes the different logical environments of past and future into each other.
How strange this reasoning is! Indeed, before its logic unfolded, it would have been utterly implausible to the mind that now thinks it; and yet as each idea precipitates into being, it opens up a new landscape in whose context a new plausibility emerges. There must be something in it, so the mind reflects, for the process itself is so like the very story of real life!
For a new implication has just come over the horizon: our own nature and activity, as well as being partly determined by past causes, and partly the result of the autonomous self-organizing iterative feedback of our own consciousness, must also be subtly guided and conditioned by future observers. Our own wave function is being collapsed by future awarenesses that we will help to bring into being and that will in turn ratify our existence and help us to fall into a definitive shape.
I know perfectly well that my own mind is not capable in itself of those leaps or marvelous compactions into a new thought that it undergoes in the process of composing a poem or a creative essay. Perhaps this feeling itself, of there being some niche or prepared receptor for the heavy current of thought, some attractor that will emerge out of its turbulence, was what the Greeks meant by the Muse. Sometimes she speaks with unmistakable and imperious tongue (yet she is so delicate, so easily deniable, is she not?), sometimes in a still, small voice; but if one had never experienced her, and suddenly heard her voice for the first time, one would be convinced that one were in the presence of the supernatural, or that one were hallucinating thoughts not of one’s own making. Only when she is, as she is, a daily source of insight and surprised reminder, do we take her voice as normal and unremarkable. But without it how dull and dim the world would be!
All cultures know of them, these spirits or kamis or “presences / That piety, passion or affection knows,” as Yeats put it, these beautiful and terrible animate forms that visited Lot and Abraham and Jacob and Ezekiel. The report of them is so widespread that they must represent some reality. Let us name these future knowers of us, these observer-participants in the creation and generation of our nature and being. They are the angels.
But as the argument implies, they are not only the attractors and subtle guides of our action, our creative evolution. They are also its result. Angels are painted as babies, as putti; of course, because they are our children, our unborn descendants. Children, but evidently children winged with incalculable power and complexity of purpose; as far beyond us as we are beyond the dim wonderings of pithecanthropus; as they were beyond the animals, plants, minerals, and physical particles that preceded them—those forerunners that, by observing, we lend a more distinct being:
Frühe Geglückte, ihr Verwöhnten der Schopfund,
Höhenziige, morgenrötliche Grate
aller Erschaffung,—Pollen der blühenden Gottheit,
Gelenke des Lichtes, Gdnge, Treppen, Throne,
Räume aus Wesen, Schilde aus Wonne, Tumulte
stürmisch entzückten Gefühls und plötzlich,
Spiegel: die die entströmte eigene Schonheit
wiederschöpfen zurück in das eigene Antlitz.
Early successes, favorites of fond Creation,
ranges, summits, dawn-red ridges
of all forthbringing,—pollen of blossoming godhead,
junctures of light, corridors, stairways, thrones,
chambers of essence, shields of felicity, tumults
of stormily-rapturous feeling, and suddenly, separate,
mirrors, drawing up again their own
outstreamed beauty into their own faces.
—Rilke on angels, repeating much that we know from Ezekiel and Blake and Giotto, and more strangely the ritual art of Indonesia and China and Tibet, the dragon-forms of Mayan vision-carvings, of African and Eskimo spirit-masks; the authentic voice of the shaman.
If the angels are our children, what must we do to bring them into being?—for clearly they are so beautiful that we ought to bring them into being. Having once experienced them, one can be in no doubt of the value of one’s existence, could one have but the smallest role in-opening to them the gates of history.
We are at a remarkable juncture in our own history and indeed of the history of the cosmos: when evolution becomes fully self-aware, when nature finds the theme and mode it has sought from the beginning. Not that the change that is coming will be utterly unprecedented. We have always been capable of directing our own evolution: in the traditional way, by choosing mates who have the beauty and wit and capacity for love and strength of mind that will lead the species by increments toward the more deeply human; and we know the more deeply human as horse breeders know racing temperament and apple breeders know a noble strain, even before we have good examples of what we are after. In like fashion a poet recognizes the line or cadence or image as truly part of the unborn poem. But now that process has become irretrievably self-conscious, and is assisted by a more and more powerful battery of technical aids.
However shocking and terrifying is the idea of biological engineering, we cannot now lay it aside. If we want angels, should we not build and beget them? Genes can be altered, added, removed; and, more excitingly, new studies show that we use only a tiny fraction of our DNA, and that our development and mature being depends almost as much on a unique pattern of suppression and expression of the genes we already have, as on what the genes are to begin with. This pattern itself may be subject to craft and sculpture. Especially in this area, now known as epigenetics, and encompassing the older, more empirical sciences of embryology and development, some of the ancient enemies of humankind—cancer, aging, immune deficiencies, neurochemical diseases—now seem to be revealing their weaknesses.
Slowly, infinitely carefully, in fear and trembling, we will continue what we have already started: the correction of inherited diseases, the repair of genetic deficits, the tuning of the chemistry of mood, memory, and thought so as to express fully, rather than in its present muffled and crippled form, the special grandeur of each individual’s inheritance. Those who are great artists, athletes, givers, scientists, lovers, know the sweet clarity and power of perfect work and action, in moments that are tragically brief but which nevertheless make a lifetime worthwhile. But they also know the stifling burden of their own usual stupidity, forgetfulness, depression, irritated spite and sheer incapacity: as when you look at a certain kind of problem in a field for which you have no talent, and nothing happens, the quick insight does not flow.
Why should not the whole human race be given the capacity to experience and use that intensely individual genius that we reverence in just a few? Let us not comfort ourselves in our present condition by false and vulgar prejudices: that genius is necessarily unhappy, that geniuses are all the same, that the greatly talented are necessarily unstable or lopsided in personality, that they lack the common touch, that they are impractical. These problems all people have, and if anything great genius is often remarkably free of them. The unhappiness of genius is less due to inherent flaws in the nature of genius itself than to the fact that having learned to fly, the genius feels more exasperatingly the crippling handicaps that all human beings labor under; and to the “inhuman dearth of noble natures” about them, as Keats put it. Perhaps through biotechnical means we may be able eventually to free the choked genius of our species: and having done this we would already be on the way to angelic intelligence and love. Of course a caution is in order: the biotechnical tools will themselves take artistic genius of a high order to wield without oversimplifying the problems or their solutions; and to this point we must return.
But our future evolution may well proceed in a fashion that partially transcends the strictly biological altogether. Gradually we are learning to approximate the capacities of the human mind by means of cybernetic artificial intelligence. Can there be any doubt that an understanding of the working of Mind will follow our understanding of the working of life, and that just as we are now able to synthesize living matter, so we will be able to synthesize self-conscious thought and feeling and imagination? One day that evil distinction between the artificial and the natural will be thrown down, and we will have escaped the mind-forged manacles that alienate us from the creative and self-reflective evolution of the rest of nature. On that day we will have extended our minds and spirit into dimension beyond dimension; we will have a direct neural-cybernetic interface with our thinking machines, and through them to all of nature; we will feel as stones and flames and petals feel, because the instruments by which we register their experience will be directly connected to our nervous systems. All nature will be our home and our body.
And of course it always was, as the Zen sages tell us. But it is a peculiar thing about us, that we can at best feel only briefly and distantly the things that we know ought to make this world, even at the worst of times, a very paradise in every moment. We can know the infinitely interesting miracle of being, but are most of the time somehow divided as by a curtain from the actuality of it as experience. Why should not nature simply be waiting for us, with our great natural technical intelligence, to simply plug ourselves in to the universe—to complete a new loop of feedback in the world? Perhaps our unhappiness, our frustrated rage, our cruel despair, come from the unconscious realization that though it is what we were built for, we haven’t got around to it yet. Nature cannot do it by herself, and thus evolved us, a special quintessence of the soul of nature, her “dearest-selved spark,” as Hopkins says, to do it for her. Perhaps the happiness of scientists and artists and saints is that they come closest to this in-feeling and participation, though by means that are only traditional and are as yet truncated of the new sensorium that needs to be added.
But the traditional means are indeed pretty wonderful in themselves. Indeed, it will be a part of the new science to recognize just how subtle and marvelous they are. The arts are already an empirical craft of artificial intelligence, a means of creating programs in paint, sound, stone, action, or words that embody their makers’ angelic insight yet survive their makers to be reincarnated when booted into the brain circuitry of other people. The traditional arts are also a way of getting access to the enormous integrating powers, the tact and instinct of nature at her best, that lie dormant in the human brain. Thus they are an essential partner with the new science and technology, in creating and begetting those future beings that we see in our visions of angels. By itself the new technique would be shallow, a technical fix with possibly disastrous consequences: monsters or chilly abortions. Only when the sensibility of a Mozart, a Shakespeare, a Velazquez, a Murasaki, a Louis Armstrong is added to that of a Von Neumann or a Francis Crick, will the miracle have a chance of happening. And the artists themselves are special partly because they in turn have more immediate access to the angels they are helping to bring to birth. We can perhaps agree that if this work is not impossible, it might be a project as worthy as the building of the cathedrals and the construction of Classical Creek civilization—something to replace the anomie of our century with a commitment that the whole world can share.
There is a curious circularity in the last paragraph that will bring us to the last point in this odd exploratory essay. Let us digress for a moment. Recently brain science has been revolutionized by the new concept of “top-down” causality (Roger Sperry’s term). Brain science still concedes that the components of the brain—its atoms, molecules, cells, and anatomy—indeed partially determine, in a “bottom-up” fashion, what, happens on the holistic level of thoughts, decisions, feelings. But it is becoming increasingly clear that there exists a very powerful top-down causality, wherein we can change the chemistry and electrical activity of our brains by means of our choices, actions, knowledge, acquired habits, creative efforts, and willed attitudes; the whole governing the parts.
But if the lower hierarchical levels of the brain are both causing and being caused by the higher levels, then the brain’s activity is an essentially circular—or, better, a spiral or helical—process. It is a feedback system determining itself and determining its own process of self-determining. Now if the brain is an elegant microcosm of the universe—and it would be hard to see how we could have survived as a species if it were not, for otherwise it would always be wrong about the world and thus have led us into extinction—then the universe itself must be such a part-whole, top-down/ bottom-up feedback system, too.
But it is also clear that the wholeness of the universe is an emergent property. As more and more sensitive organisms evolve to observe it, escaping the relative solipsism of the subatomic and atomic levels of being, so the universe assumes more and more a coherent unity. On a starry night we can see, in a sketchy and synoptic way, nearly half of it: but it takes specially and recently evolved eyes and brains to do so. If the holistic level of the universe is still only emerging, then we must identify the past with part-to-whole, bottom-up causality; and the future with whole-to-part, top-down causality. That is, if the universe is something like a brain, the brain-parts of the universe are its past, and its mind is its future. We might even define the past and future, and thus time itself, by means of such a distinction.
But if the process of determining, of causality, goes both ways in time—bottom-up in the futurewards direction, top-down in the pastwards direction—then the universe itself is just such an iterative, spiral feedback system as is the brain. It is not just a linear process, and we must abandon all merely linear models of time. As a nonlinear system the universe is one of a class of systems now being investigated by chaos theory, fractal-mathematics, and the theory of nonlinear, dissipative, self-organizing dynamical processes. Every event and object in the world has in a sense been round and round the great circuit of material and final cause an infinite number of times: its origins determining its present state, its results determining its origins. Thus every event in the world is infinitely rich; there is indeed infinity in a grain of sand, eternity in a flower. And this infinity, this eternity is not the vacuous and otiose thing that we find in classical metaphysics and set theory, but an active, openended, transformative infinity, a generativeness, like Chomskyan grammar. Every experience we have, if we were to see it properly, is infinitely deep, fully involving the creative and voluntary energy of the universe as a whole.
Here, of course,