EDGE


EDGE 11 — April 1, 1997


THE THIRD CULTURE

"A BIG THEORY OF CULTURE"
A Talk with Brian Eno

What is cultural value and how does that come about? Nearly all of the history of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories, and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn't like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It's the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: no, it's us. It's us who make those meanings.

THE REALITY CLUB

Richard Saul Wurman on John Perry Barlow

Stuart Hameroff, Philip Anderson, Murray Gell-Mann on Stuart Kauffman & Lee Smolin

(Stuart Hameroff): The model which Roger Penrose and I have put forth ("orchestrated objective reduction - Orch OR") for brain microtubules predicts conscious events which are rearrangements of fundamental spacetime geometry — for example at the level of Planck scale quantum spin networks. If experience is a fundamental property of the universe, like mass, spin, charge (as proposed by Wheeler —"pre-geometry", Chalmers and others) then qualia, or proto-conscious experience must be embedded at the most basic level.

(Philip Anderson):I found the Smolin-Kauffman piece extraordinarily "ironic". One needs only to substitute angels for the things they are counting and we're back in the Middle Ages.

Lee Smolin responds to Gell-Mann, Barbour, Hameroff, Anderson

On Murray Gell-Mann:

I certainly appreciate that there is a history of worrying about both problems of constructibility in physics and about the problem of time in path integral formalisms that I would like to know more about. When I was an undergraduate Harold Morowitz gave me some very good advice, which was to always follow the scientific questions and be prepared to invent or adopt new techniques whenever called for, rather than to stick with one approach because one knows it.

On Julian Barbour:

However, Julian's argument that time disappears in a theory of quantum cosmology is pretty strong. I think it can only be defeated in two ways: by attacking the assumptions of the standard approach and by constructing an alternative. In the work connected with the paper with Stu we are trying to do both. One can also understand the work of Gell-Mann, Hartle and others as an attempt to formulate a version of quantum cosmology in which time plays a role.

On Stuart Hameroff:

Whooosh, consciousness.... Let me say two things before anything else: 1) there is no scientist I admire and respect more than Roger Penrose and 2) I am far from convinced that science has advanced to the point that consciousness is a scientific problem.

On Philip Anderson:

I have the impression Phil is complaining a bit too much. I am sure I am not doing "ironic science", and would ask Phil to look a little at the actual work and reconsider his comment. I take it that Phil refers to John Horgan notion of ironic science, which is science that has no hope of being tested experimentally. I would like to explain that the paper with Stu comes out of a line of work that has aimed at, and succeeded in, making definite experimental predictions.


(10,347 words)


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher | Kip Parent, Webmaster


THE REALITY CLUB


Richard Saul Wurman on John Perry Barlow


From: Richard Saul Wurman
To: John Perry Barlow
Submitted: 3/28/97

JPB
ELEGANT/HUMAN/CLEAR/USEFUL BACK&FORTH DISCOURSE THOUGHT PREVOKING FOR ME.

RICHARD SAUL WURMAN is the chairman and creative director of the TED conferences (Technology, Entertainment, Design). He is also an architect, a cartographer, the creator of the Access Travel Guide Series, and the author and designer of more than sixty books, including Information Architects, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and Information Anxiety.


Stuart Hameroff, Philip Anderson, Murray Gell-Mann on Stuart Kauffman & Lee Smolin
From: Stuart Hameroff


To: Stuart Kauffman and Lee Smolin
Submitted: 3/28/97

REPLY TO KAUFFMAN AND SMOLIN'S SOLUTION FOR THE PROBLEM OF TIME

I congratulate Stuart Kauffman and Lee Smolin for some bold thinking. In the context of my collaboration with Roger Penrose, I offer the following comments:

The flow of time is a feature of consciousness. Outside of consciousness, there may not be a flow of time. Consciousness provides the clock.

Consider Julian Barbour's time capsules. "Each experienced instant of time is really a completely self contained entity, a time capsule....The instant is not in time. Time is in the instant. There are just lots of different nows..."

This is beautiful, but requires consciousness to *experience* the instant. What is consciousness?

The model which Roger Penrose and I have put forth ("orchestrated objective reduction - Orch OR") for brain microtubules predicts conscious events which are rearrangements of fundamental spacetime geometry — for example at the level of Planck scale quantum spin networks. If experience is a fundamental property of the universe, like mass, spin, charge (as proposed by Wheeler —"pre-geometry", Chalmers and others) then qualia, or proto-conscious experience must be embedded at the most basic level. Quantum spin networks (first described by Penrose in 1971, and elaborated e.g. by Rovelli and Smolin in 1995) are a representation of the most basic level of reality, and therefore provide a possible "site" for proto-conscious experience. If proto-conscious experience is indeed a "funda-mental" property, where else but the Planck scale could it be embedded? So consciousness, it is proposed, is a self-organizing process at the level of quantum spin networks.

The particular self-organizing process is Penrose's "objective reduction — OR" — Roger's quantum gravity solution to the problem of the collapse of the wave function.

Basically, a quantum superposition which is isolated from environment and avoids decoherence will continue to evolve according to the Schrodinger equation, but only until reaching a threshold imposed by quantum gravity. It then reduces, or collapses to discrete, classical states.

The time until threshold is inversely related to the degree of superposition — the amount of superposed mass and separated spacetime— by E-h/T. E relates to the superposed mass, h (actually hbar) is Planck's constant over 2pi, and T is the time until reduction, or collapse. A large superposed system therefore collapses quickly, a small system only after a long time (assuming isolation in both cases). For example a one kilogram superposed Schrodinger's cat — if isolated — would self-collapse after only 10^-37 seconds. A single superposed atom — if isolated — would self collapse only after 10^6 years !! Somewhere in between these extremes are physiological brain processes in the range of tens to hundreds of milliseconds. An OR brain process in this range would require superposition of mass in the range of nanograms.

The quantum gravity threshold is the "objective" criterion for self-collapse. According to Roger it comes into play for the following reason. In quantum superposition, mass (curvature in spacetime) apparently exists simultaneously in two location, or states. Roger takes this separation seriously, and observes that the underlying spacetime geometry down to the Planck scale of spin networks also separates — i.e. simultaneous curvatures in opposite directions. A critical degree of spacetime separation becomes unstable, and reduces, or collapses to a single geometry, or universe state. Roger claims the separation reduces ("chooses") non-computably, but only if it occurs by the OR quantum gravity process. If reduction occurs by environmental decoherence — loss of isolation — the classical states are chosen computably, as would generally be the case in a technological quantum computer. (The "non-constructible" process Stu and Lee mention may be Penrose's OR.)

Non-computable OR events are irreversible. A sequence of irreversible events "ratchet forward in time", creating a direction in spacetime, a subjective "flow" of time. Thus consciousness is a sequence of conscious events.

Our model proposes that OR events are coupled to neurophysiological processes, specifically at the level of microtubules in the brain's neurons and glia. Microtubule-associated proteins "tune" the quantum states, so we refer to the proposed process as "orchestrated objective reduction — Orch OR". We have suggested that isolation and coherence are maintained by cycles of actin gelation (for example in concert with 40 Hz neural activity) and that macroscopic quantum coherence among microtubules in widely distributed neurons and glia occurs via gap junctions.

The proposed Orch OR conscious events resemble Barbour's "time capsules", and both seem similar to events which the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described as "occasions of experience". (Abner Shimony has observed that Whitehead "occasions" are suitable descriptions of quantum events.) Discreteness in consciousness may also account for reports by meditators of "flickerings" in their consciousness, and relate to what Rodolfo Llinas has characterized as 40 Hz "cognitive quanta".

If consciousness is a sequence of discrete events, apparent aberrations in the subjective flow of time may be explained. The basketball superstar Michael Jordan, when asked to account for his astounding number of "moves" replied that when he is playing well, time (or at least the other players) seem to slow down. Accident victims often recount how time slowed down. In these cases, the number of conscious events may be increased compared to some standard frame of reference. Patients under general anesthesia have no concept as to how long they were unconscious — or them, time did not flow.

The two main points I'd like to make:

1) The flow of time is a feature of consciousness. Outside of consciousness, there may not be a flow of time. Consciousness provides the clock.

2) The Orch OR model suggests consciousness is a sequence of self-organizing rearrangements of spacetime geometry at the level of quantum spin networks.

In closing, I wonder if Stu Kauffman would comment on the possible role of consciousness in evolution, and particularly the suggestion that the appearance of primitive consciousness at the level of small worms and urchins precipitated the Cambrian evolutionary explosion 540 million years ago.

Stuart Hameroff

Relevant papers and references may be found at through this link.

STUART HAMEROFF, MD is Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology, University of Arizona, and a collaborator with Roger Penrose in proposing a specific model (orchestrated objective reduction) in which quantum coherent superposition in brain microtubules distorts space-time (via quantum gravity) to cause wave function self-collapse, and instantaneous "now" events comprising a stream of consciousness.

In addition to his research in consciousness, in 1994 he coorganized an international, multidisciplinary conference "Toward a Scientific Basis for Consciousness" held at the University of Arizona. He is coeditor of Toward a Science of Consciousness - The First Tucson Discussions and Debates, S. Hameroff, A. Kaszniak, A Scott, Eds.


From: Philip Anderson
To: John Brockman
Submitted: 3/31/97

John,

I was a little disturbed that Murray did not object a little to the introduction you gave the SFI. We have been trying very hard to get the message out that we are primarily an institution which does not indulge in "ironic science", in horgperson's phrase. You made us sound a little less flaky than some journalists do, but the aspect of postmodernism does hover over the examples of our faculty you chose.

I also did want to comment that I found the Smolin-Kauffman piece extraordinarily "ironic". One needs only to substitute angels for the things they are counting and we're back in the Middle Ages. I firmly believe that science is only what is subject to empirical test, at least in some foreseeable future. Lee and Stu are very bright people but they do not seem to understand this objection to what they do, nor do they have much sesitivity to the real concerns that lead many of us to be a little ambiguous about Horgan's thesis.

PHILIP ANDERSON is a Nobel laureate physicist at Princeton and one of the leading theorists on superconductivity.


From: Murray Gell-Mann
Submitted: 3/31/97

I didn't see the "introduction" to SFI to which Phil refers. If it presents our institute as flaky, I object very strongly. Please convey that message to Phil. We do have one or two flakes, but generally speaking our work is quite respectable as well as refreshing.

Murray

MURRAY GELL-MANN is a theoretical physicist; winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics; a cofounder of the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a professor and cochairman of the science board; a director of the J.D. and C.T. MacArthur Foundation; author of The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.


From: Lee Smolin
Submitted: 4/1/97

Here are my comments to the responses:

First, to Murray's Gell-Mann's comment:

Of course I am aware of the work Jim Hartle, Murray and others have done on decoherence as well as its possible applications to the problem of time. At the same time, the approach we have been taking recently has some new features, that offer a different perspective on the basic interpretational issues in quantum gravity, including the problem of time.

It is true that Jim and Murray may have a right to say "I told you so" as I, as well as several others like Mike Reisenberger and Carlo Rovelli, are now using path integral methods in quantum gravity, which they have been doing for years. This puts our work, which grew out of a line of work using the more traditional canonical approach, in closer touch with theirs, which is good.

(I should explain to the readers that there are two approaches to quantum mechanics, the first based on the canonical or hamiltonian formalism, the second based on Feynman's path integral formalism. So there are correspondingly two classes of approaches to quantum gravity.)

However, our work is rather different the previous path integral work, as it has grown out of a set of results that came from canonical quantization. Of course, if all we were saying in this paper is that path integral approaches offer some way out of the problem of time in quantum cosmology that would not be available in a canonical approach we would be repeating things they wrote many years ago. But we are saying some new things, that I would hope that they pay attention to. To repeat them briefly:

1) The kind of path integral we are contemplating has a special form, which came out of work by and with Fotini Markopoulou, in which each state goes in a finite time to a finite number of other states. This makes it possible to apply certain analogies to statistical mechanics problems like directed percolation and boolean networks, which are not available for general path integral formalisms. The particular point of the paper with Stu is that this gives us new possibilities for the construction and interpretation of the theory that were not available before.

2) The states that are propagated by the path integral are related to those that came out of the canonical approach (these are the spin network states). We know how to measure certain observables in these states such as area and volume, thus the proposal is much more specific then before. In particular, as we know the state space, we can raise in detail problems of about the constructibility of the state space, inner product and so forth. Such problems may have been raised before in a general setting, now they are being found in a particular approach to quantum gravity based on quantization of general relativity on which many people are working.

3) There are close connections between all the new proposals for path integrals in quantum gravity made by Reisenberger, Rovelli, Markopoulou and myself, Baez etc and an important mathematical structure, which is topological quantum field theory in four dimensions. As Louis Crane has been saying for some years (and he is the person who has been leading that field) this opens up a new approach to the interpretational issues in quantum cosmology, based on the fact that in topological quantum field theory states are assigned not to the whole of a closed universe, but to boundaries splitting the universe into parts.

I certainly appreciate that there is a history of worrying about both problems of constructibility in physics and about the problem of time in path integral formalisms that I would like to know more about. When I was an undergraduate Harold Morowitz gave me some very good advice, which was to always follow the scientific questions and be prepared to invent or adopt new techniques whenever called for, rather than to stick with one approach because one knows it. He forgot to tell me that when one does this one often finds oneself working with some ideas that are new to you, but have been the concern of other people for some time. I hope that Murray, Jim and others who have been working on path integrals for many years will see that we do have something new to contribute to this direction, both technically and in terms of the various interpretational problems. In turn I look forward to learning more from them about things I certainly missed in their work.


To Julian Barbour's comment:

Julian's influence has been extremely important for myself and others in figuring out how to think clearly about the hard issues in quantum gravity. I certainly take his point of view very seriously, and I agree with him about a great many things. But in the end I can't accept his idea that the notion that there is a flow of time is an illusion. My intuition is that a good theory of cosmology should have time and causality in it as an essential element, for reasons that I go into at length in my book. As a result, I was very interested in Fotini Markopoulou's proposal that an evolution rule be constructed for quantum gravity that has causality built in at the fundamental level, which is how this work started.

However, Julian's argument that time disappears in a theory of quantum cosmology is pretty strong. I think it can only be defeated in two ways: by attacking the assumptions of the standard approach and by constructing an alternative. In the work connected with the paper with Stu we are trying to do both. One can also understand the work of Gell-Mann, Hartle and others as an attempt to formulate a version of quantum cosmology in which time plays a role.

About the details of what Julian says: I think there may very well be a problem with constructing the whole configuration space of general relativity, because of the necessity of identifying structures which are identical under diffeomorphisms. This may very well give rise to a recognition problem for which there is no finite procedure or which is at least NP complete. But as this is a technical issue I won't go further into this here.

Certainly I agree with Julian that in the future we will know more and that getting there will be a lot of fun. That's one reason I believe in time.


To Stuart Hameroff's comments:

Whooosh, consciousness.... Let me say two things before anything else: 1) there is no scientist I admire and respect more than Roger Penrose and 2) I am far from convinced that science has advanced to the point that consciousness is a scientific problem. I think it very well may be the case that sometime in the future, after we have solved some of the problems we seem to be able to make progress on, we may very well have a language and conceptual framework adequate to address the question of consciousness. But I don't think we do now. So my attitude to the problem of consciousness is to postpone it for future scientists. I think the problems we are just now able to make progress with, such as the origin of life or quantum gravity are hard enough. I also suspect that their solution will change the way we understand the world so much that questions that are presently out of bounds like consciousness will look rather different.

I also believe strongly that we can solve problems like quantum gravity and the origin of life without having to worry about consciousness. I doubt very much that whatever consciousness is it has anything to do with the basic quantum transitions between quantum states of spacetime geometry. We seem to be able to do quite well without any such notions.

Of course this does not mean that very smart and brave people like Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, or Daniel C. Dennett, or others, may not be able to say provocative things about consciousness, which may effect what they try to do in physics and mathematics. And it certainly doesn't mean that neurobiologists may not make a lot of progress understanding in detail what are the biological processes associated with consciousness. But the deep philosophical problems of "qualia" and so forth remain as far as I can tell, beyond what we can discuss scientifically.


To Phil Anderson's comment:

I have the impression Phil is complaining a bit too much. I am sure I am not doing "ironic science", and would ask Phil to look a little at the actual work and reconsider his comment. I take it that Phil refers to John Horgan notion of ironic science, which is science that has no hope of being tested experimentally. I would like to explain that the paper with Stu comes out of a line of work that has aimed at, and succeeded in, making definite experimental predictions. That paper by itself makes no predictions, I would agree, but it is aimed at providing the context within which further experimental predictions may be couched. I would ask Phil to look at the whole body of work that this paper comes from before making a judgement as to its "irony". I think I am sufficiently "sensitive" to the need to connect theory to possible experiment that I have spent much of the last ten years trying to invent ways that ideas about quantum gravity could be subject to test. I would like then to respond to Phil by explaining something about what people have been able to do to connect ideas in quantum gravity with experiment.

It is true that in quantum gravity we are dealing with questions that are both ambitious and difficult. They are ambitious because their solution may very well require modifying or replacing the basic principles of quantum theory and/or relativity. They are difficult because we cannot now do experiments at the Planck scale and one must be inventive to do things that can in principle be tested experimentally. But it is very possible to do work in quantum gravity that makes experimental predictions. I would point to several:

1) With Carlo Rovelli and others we have predictions of discrete spectra for areas and volumes in quantum gravity. These are specific predictions of the spectra; when it will be possible to measure geometrical quantities to the accuracy of the Planck scale the theory (which rests on very generic assumptions) will be easily refutable. It should also be mentioned that the results of Rovelli and myself on the discreteness of quantum geometry have been reproduced as theorems in a mathematically rigorous formulation of quantum gravity, so they have the same status as the CPT theorem and the connection between spin and statistics in ordinary quantum field theory.

2) In string theory there are detailed predictions as to the behavior of high energy scattering, that would easily confirm or disconfirm the theory.

3) String theory now makes detailed predictions about scattering of radiation from certain classes of black holes, beyond the regime where previous theory was reliable. Disconfirmation of any of these would refute the theory.

4) There are detailed predictions of violations of CPT in scattering of neutrinos in one version of quantum gravity, due to Chang and Soo.

5) Given simple and widely discussed conjectures about what happens at the singularities of a black hole, one can make detailed predictions about astrophysical consequences of varying the parameters of low energy physics. As these are discussed in detail in my book I will not dwell on them, except to say that there are testable consequences, for example, for the upper mass limit of neutron stars. This is to say there are hypotheses about quantum gravity that would be refuted by the discovery of a 3 solar mass neutron star. Some versions of this theory are already refuted.

These are not the only examples, but I think they are enough. (for more details I have a paper on "Experimental predictions from quantum gravity"which can be found on the lanl.gov archive at gr-qc/9503027.) It is true that many (but by no means all) of these experiments must await improvements of technology, so that we can do experiments at the Planck scale. But to be ironic there must be no reasonable hope of ever doing such experiments and I don't think this would be a reasonable position. There are now proposals to build a satellite that will improve the resolution of measurements of the cosmic black body radiation to the point that details of inflationary models can be tested; this involves the physics of the grand unified scale which is only four or so orders of magnitude away from the Planck scale. We also now have detected cosmic rays with 10 to the 19 electron volts energy. These are both much closer to the Planck scale than one may have guessed. I don't think it is at all impossible that clever people will invent ways to deduce information about Planck scale physics from observation; there are always new ideas about how to push the limits on the testability of theory. A recent paper of Coleman and Glashow about how to use cosmic rays to test special relativity to much higher precision than previously thought is an example. I think it is reasonable to go ahead and work on quantum gravity with the expectation that some time in the next century people will be doing experiments that test predictions about Planck scale physics.

A reasonable person might wonder whether it might not be better to wait till then before attacking quantum gravity seriously. In principle they might have been right, but some of us have been going ahead any way, and what we have found is that the problem of combining the principles of general relativity and quantum field theory is constrained enough that one gets definite experimental predictions out. Thus, it seems it is possible to do good science now in quantum gravity, and collect a set of predictions that we hope will stimulate experimental physicists and observational astronomers to develop methods to check them. This is good old old fashioned science, as I understand it, nothing ironic or postmodern about it.

I can't say very much on Phil's other comments. I don't understand why people at SFI seem so worried about its image, it is clear to me, and I would think to most scientists, that it is a very impressive and exciting place. I know of a lot of good science going on there, and I've found it a very stimulating place to visit. I've learned a lot there that has helped my work in astrophysics, stimulated thoughts about directions in quantum gravity and given me a way to talk and collaborate with people about problems in theoretical biology and statistical physics. I highly approve of the place, if there are a few journalists who don't I suspect it is because they misunderstood what the place is about to begin with.

LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; professor of physics and member of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State University; author of The Life of The Cosmos (Oxford, forthcoming).


THE THIRD CULTURE


"A BIG THEORY OF CULTURE"
A Talk With Brian Eno

Introduction By Stewart Brand

Here's what I greatly appreciate about Brian Eno, apart from the pleasure I take from his friendship and from the pure delight of his music and art...

Like all significant artists, Brian works from a deep and complex and evolving frame of reference. Unlike most artists, and like most scientists, he talks about that frame of reference. He's not worried that your experience of his art might be sullied by your understanding something about what he's up to — rather the opposite: he would like to include you in the process.

This is risky, but valuable. It's risky because once viewers or listeners know what the artist is attempting, they have criteria for judging when he has failed.

Brian's approach is valuable because it is so inviting. The informed viewer or listener is invited to think like an artist and therefore in a sense to become an artist. This is good for art and good for civilization.

I think that's what makes Brian's book, A Year With Swollen Appendices, so appealing. Brian is famous, and that makes us interested, and he's charming in print as well as in person, so we engage him comfortably. But what gets us about the book is how revealing it is. We see what a good artist does with his mind all day. It's inspiring.

There's a further benefit to telling all, this time to the artist. By not keeping his frame of reference secret, Brian is freed from binding allegiance to whatever he was thinking when he first became successful. You don't cling to secrets you've told. You move on, and your work keeps being surprising as a result. Maybe this approach works best with artists who are easily bored. Brian is, after all, the author/composer/performer of the tune (now a well-known meme), "Been there, done that."

Stewart Brand


BRIAN ENO studied art prior to moving to London in 1969 to join Roxy records where he began making and producing records.In the late 1970s he picked up his visual art activities again and began making installations with light, video, slides, and sound.

He has produced U2, Talking Heads and Devo and collaborated with David Bowie, John Cale, and Laurie Anderson. Over the past 10 years he has had 10 group shows and 33 individual shows of his audio/video installations in cities throughout the world. He is the author of A Year With Swollen Appendices (Faber & Faber).-



"A BIG THEORY OF CULTURE"
A Talk With Brian Eno


JB: Let's talk about your theory of culture.

ENO: I guess the question I've always been really interested in, the one that underlies all the others, is alluded to somewhat in my book and I've written about it more since, which is to try to find a big theory about culture: why people do culture, what it does for us, what we actually call culture, which things do we include in that category, and which things do we leave out. I have two intentions in thinking about this. One is that I want to find a single language within which one can talk about fashion, cake decoration, Cezanne, abstract paintings, architecture — within which one can discuss any what one might call nonfunctional, stylistic behavior — which is what humans actually spend more and more of their time doing. The better off humans are, the more time they spend engaged in issues of style, essentially — making choices between one look of things and another look of things. The first question is to say "is there one language within which we can talk about all of those things?" There doesn't have to be a separate language for fine art, so-called, separate from anything else we talk about. There should be one language that fits these things together.

The second question is to try to say "is there a way of understanding why humans continuously and constantly and without exception engage in cultural activity?" We don't know of human groups that don't produce something that we would call art. It seems to be something that we are biologically inclined to do. If we are, then what is the nature of that drive? What is it doing for us? When people say, well surely this has been written about, what I say is, actually it hasn't, really. The number of books on this subject is vanishingly small. They occupy a shelf about 18" long. What has been done is a huge sort of taxonomy of cultural artifacts; people sort of listing things and saying that looks a bit like that, and these seem to belong together, and so on and so on. But I always say that this is a little bit like natural history before Darwin came along. Before Darwin there were lots of observations, there were people noticing all of these things existed, making careful notes about them, talking about them, saying that this related to this, this was higher than that or lower than that, and making all the sorts of judgments and observations that people now make about cultural behavior. When Darwin came along, what he said was very simple, very easy for anyone to understand, — and extremely profound, because it gave one language — the language of survival and the drive to survival and selection and so on. He gave one language in which one could frame all of the things called living organisms. By doing that, it made that subject not just a way of collecting heaps of material, but of actually making theories about that material. In a way he brought to an end the sort of gathering stage of natural history, the stage where the job of a natural historian was just to go out and make observations, and he brought into being the next phase, which was the task of somehow relating things together and making extrapolations and predictions, and saying if this happens, we might expect that this would happen. That's the job of science.

JB: But you're an artist. Why are we talking about Darwin?

ENO: Most of the questions I'm interested in about art and culture really are based on trying to look at them with some kind of big theory of that kind, which is not oblique, not mysterious, is quite easily graspable, and would allow a real discussion about culture. It's partly because I think most art writing is absolutely appallingly bad.

My first mother-in-law, that's to say the mother of my first wife, was a very interesting woman who lived in Cambridge, and had a salon, at which quite a lot of very good scientists would appear, Francis Crick, John Kendrew, Herman Bondi, among others. Her name was Joan Harvey and she ran a thing called the Cambridge Humanists. She's a very bright and interesting woman. I met her daughter, and was taken home, and got along very well with Joan. I was 17 at the time. One day Joan said to me, it's all very well what you do, but I just don't understand why someone with a brain as good as yours wants to waste it being an artist. This question cut me to the quick in a way. I came from was working-class where nobody particularly cared what you did. It was the first time that anyone had ever cared. Then I fell in with a lot of arty people, who of course assumed that being an artist was a wonderful thing, and never bothered to ask the question about why — about what the point of it might be, or what it actually did for anybody. Joan asked that question, and I never stopped thinking about it. That was the beginning of an interesting double life, because part of my life of course is being an artist, but the other part, and just as interesting to me, is wondering what it is I'm doing, or what everybody else is doing ­ asking what it's for.

JB: How do you think the arts and the sciences differ?

ENO: If you asked 20 scientists what they thought they were doing, or what they thought the point of science was, I would think that most of them would come up with an answer something like, we want to understand the world, we want to see how the world works. If you asked 20 artists the same question — what are you doing it for, what does art do for us — I guarantee you'll get about 15 different answers, and the other five will tell you to mind your own business. There is no consensus whatsoever about what art is there for although some people will say, well, it's to make life more beautiful.

Here I am, an artist — who reads mostly science books — like most other artists. I know very few artists who read books about art. Why, I ask myself, is there not a conversation of that quality in the arts? Many artists normally are talking about science, they're not talking about art — there is not a developed language, for having a conversation about the arts.

I'm gradually arriving at some sort of a theory of culture that is getting a few adherents now. I've been talking about it awhile, and I've slimmed it down enough that it is communicable in less than two days.

The first assumption is that all human groups engage in something that we would call artistic behavior — if they are at all capable of it, that is if they are beyond the most basic problems of survival — and even when they aren't, they will engage in decorative, ornamental, and often very complex stylistic behavior. This takes a big chunk of their resources — it takes a lot of energy. So the first question is, why would that be the case? If it is the case, one would assume that it's doing something more than just mildly entertaining — it's doing something important for us.

The second assumption is this thing I mentioned earlier about assuming that culture is in some sense a unified field, in the same sense that life is a unified field. So that one wants to come up with a language, just as biologists want to come up with a language within which you can discuss whales and amoebas without having to invent a whole new set of terms for them each of them. You want to have some structure underneath that would say, yes, we can locate those things within the same pantheon of possibilities.

JB: So is this an artistic analogue to a unified field theory?

ENO: I want to find a way of talking about culture, so therefore if I talk about it, I have to be able to include everything from what's considered the most ephemeral, menial, and unimportant version of culture — haircuts, shoe designs — to what are considered the most hallowed and eternal examples of it. Now when I try to think about what it does for us, I try to think what happens to you in certain specific situations. For example, let's take this pair of designer sunglasses that happen to be on the table in front of me. They're very styled. They don't have to be like that. Glasses don't have to be funny, oval, weird-shaped looking glasses, space-age type glasses. As I put those glasses on, I'm not only keeping sun out of my eyes. I'm also engaging in some kind of game with myself and the rest of the world. What I'm doing is I'm entering into some kind of simulator. I'm saying, "what would it be like to be the kind of person that wears these kinds of glasses?" What I mean by that is, I'm not actually abandoning who I am and becoming somebody else; I'm for a while entering into a game where I suddenly become this person that's a different person from the person you've just been talking to.

With all fashion, what we do is play at being somebody else. We play at inhabiting another kind of world. If I decide to cut my hair short and dress like a tank commander, I play with the resonances of kitsch, militaria, dominance, and surrender , and control, and strength and weakness and all those sorts of things — I'm role-playing effectively, when I'm making fashion choices.

If I go to a cinema and I look at a film, what I do is take part in another kind of role-playing. I first of all watch a world being constructed, and if the film is any good I understand what the conditions and rules of that world are, and then I watch a few people who represent certain sets and bundles of characteristics, and I see what they do and how they relate to that world. Essentially what I'm watching is a kind of experiment that's been set up. I'm watching what would it be like if the world was like this, and what would it be like if this kind of person met that kind of person in that kind of context?

JB: Is this something one does consciously?

ENO: This kind of playing with other worlds, this ability to move from the world in my head to the possible world in your head, and all the other millions of possible worlds that we can imagine, is something that humans do with such fluency, and such ease, that we don't notice ourselves doing it. We only notice how powerful that process is when we meet people who can't do it — severely autistic children, for instance, who are incapable of switching worlds — who in many senses can appear completely intelligent, but they are incapable of seeing that there is any world other than the one that they perceive at this moment. This makes them incapable of two very important things: they can't cooperate easily, because to cooperate you have to understand not only your world, but the world of the person with whom you're cooperating, because you're trying to make a new common world, so you have to see where the other two worlds are. And they can't deceive. Autistic children also are incapable of deception, because they could not understand how they could create a situation in which you could see a different world from the one that they believe exists.

To a very large degree, cooperation and deception are the two things that distinguish human beings from the other animals. We have noticed now that some of the higher primates have the rudiments of cooperation and deception, but compared to ours they really are very rudimentary. My argument is that what the constant engagement in culture does for us, is that it enables us to continually rehearse this ability we have — the use of this big part of our brain that is involved in postulating, imagining, exploring, extrapolating other worlds, either individually or cooperatively.

This is the point at which there is a deep connection between art and science: each is a highly organized form of pretending; of saying "let's see what would happoen if the world was like this."

JB: Let's move on to your ideas about metaphors.

ENO: "The other worlds theory" you might say, is one part of my idea. The other part is what I call "the metaphors theory." Humans actually codify most of their knowledge not in terms of mathematical tables, sets of statistics and scientific laws, but in terms of metaphors. Most of the things we normally have to deal with understanding are complex, fuzzy, messy, changing, and in fact poorly delineated. We don't actually know where the boundaries of them are, let alone being able to make clear questions about them. We spend a lot of our time as ordinary humans navigating through complicated situations with one another, that require constant negotiation, and constant new attempts to understand.

Science is, of course, one extreme version of this process. Science works by trying to say, okay, I can separate off this piece of the world from the rest. Effectively we can say, I've separated that off, and then I can make some theories and predictions about it. Science therefore enables us to come up with a structure upon which we can build useful metaphors. This is why artists are interested in science — it's because science keeps coming up with big ideas, like chaos, like complexity, that we then think, ah yes, perhaps that's how a lot of things work. Then we have a new metaphor. We don't have to fully understand the science that made that metaphor.

A lot of those kinds of metaphors derive from science, but a lot of them derive from literature, poetry, music. We live in a big construction of metaphors —nearly all of our knowledge is rather fuzzy in that sense. One of the things that artists do is invent metaphors, break up metaphors, challenge them, pull them apart, put them together in new order and so on. One of the things art does also is to remind you constantly of this process that you're most of the time engaged in — the process of metaphor-making. I am interested in the work of George Lakoff. I thought that Metaphors We Live By was a very interesting book, because it pulls you away from the old model of the mind having two departments, the rational department and the kind of intuitive department. It says, no, it's not quite like that, it says there's a continuum, that there are places where we can be strictly rational, such as when I'm doing my accounts with my calculator, when I'm making precise estimates of how I'll make something and what it'll be like. I can use all of the purely rational tools for that. But then there's a whole continuum, which is actually unbroken as far as I can see, where at the one end I can be entirely rational, then I can be pretty logical but I have to make a few guesses, right down to another end here where it's pure hunch. It's absolutely pure hunch.

JB: How does it all come together. Or, does it come together at all?

ENO: Mostly we're given the impression that there are just these two separate ways of doing things. However, I believe that one is constantly navigating along that whole spectrum. And that process of navigation is a process of donning different kinds of metaphor, accepting the usefulness of different kinds of metaphor. Once again this hasn't been really worked on by art writers.

Again, any of the interesting work on this has been done from the position of science, and has therefore tended to want to address that end of the spectrum of things. If I drew that spectrum of the highly rational to the highly intuitive, what I would have to say is that we don't spend much of our time at either of those extremes. We spend most of our time negotiating somewhere along the middle.

You have art writers who constantly celebrate the "intuition" extreme, and think that this is the sort of apex of human existence, and you have scientists who by default almost dignify the other one. That's where they live, or that's where they'd like to live. They want to be able to make the kind of statements that push that boundary. What I would like to see is a conversation that admits that we spend most of our time somewhere in the middle, and we ought to find a way of thinking about it.

I suppose at the root of all this is the feeling that possibly the only way that humans can remain cooperative is by those of us who are artists or who are interested in the arts realizing that we have some kind of a job to do. It's no good any more as far as I'm concerned for artists to just take the Bohemian attitude of, oh, it just comes out of me, and I don't know what I'm doing, etc. I just can't stand that, I don't want this romantic attitude that says artists shouldn't be part of this planet. This is a real job, and it has to do something.

JB: How do you do this job?

ENO: I wrote to Richard Dawkins recently who had just given The Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1 (/......) in which he said that England always celebrates the arts, and doesn't celebrate the sciences. In fact he's right; there is a sort of liberal humanistic culture here which acts like art is wonderful and science is something that people should just get on with, and tell us when you've come up with a new washing machine or something. He gave the impression in his lecture that there was therefore a much better understanding of the arts than of the sciences, and I said I felt exactly the reverse was true, that people had a very poor understanding of the arts, and the reason they could happily waffle on about it was because their waffle was unchallengeable. There's such a poor conversation about it that you can say whatever crap you want to, and nobody's going to call you on it. The other thing is that everybody recognizes the power of science. We recognize the power of cloning technologies, of nuclear weapons and so on. Everybody knows that science is powerful and could be dangerous, therefore there's a whole lot of criticism on that basis. What people don't realize is that culture is powerful and could be dangerous too. As long as culture is talked about as though it's a kind of nice little add-on to make things look a bit better in this sort of brutal life we all lead, as long as it's just seen as the icing on the cake, then people won't realize that it's the medium in which we're immersed, and which is forming us, which is making us what we are and what we think.

Dawkins wrote back saying my letter came at a good time because what he's thinking about more and more is memes, rather than genes, and of course memes is what culture is about. Culture is the landscape of memes.

JB: What prompted you to contact him?

ENO: I had written a short letter. I'm sure he gets loads of mail, I didn't want to burden him, especially after a television lecture. But the appalling thing is that when you find out how much mail people do get, it's virtually zero. One of the things that changed my life a few years ago was listening to a radio program we have on Sunday evening called "In Committee." It's the reports of the parliamentary select committees, which like your American committees have the task of addressing particular issues and then making a recommendation. There had been one very hot issue which was about whether there should be a third nuclear power station in a particular area. It had been a big media thing for months and months. Finally the report came, and the chairman of the committee read the report, and he said that well, in the six months that the committee has been sitting we've had a tremendous public response on this issue. We've received almost 150 letters. I was amazed! — this constitutes a terrific response? You suddenly realize actually that a letter can make a difference.

What makes a difference is knowing that somebody's listening, and paying attention. I've written a few things for papers and so on, and what counts is knowing that the conversation has gotten through. I don't care about the figures, that the piece reached 500,000 readers — for it doesn't make any difference if they didn't read it. But if you know that it reached two or three, and you then enter into a conversation with them, then that's made a difference. I'm sure you know that.

JB: Where do you see yourself going with these ideas?

ENO: One of the understandings I look for is anything that starts to take seriously the culture that ordinary people make. I find this in books such as Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander and How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. It's important to seek to dignify and take seriously what people who don't consider themselves experts and professionals do with their time. I would want to see the same thing done culturally, that we start to recognize that people are cultural beings. They can't help themselves. It's not a question of making a decision to become an artist. You can't help yourself, to some extent. That's an important psychological step, because it says to people: you do it.

There's another level at which I would like to say that much more profoundly; it's something I didn't talk about at all because it's a difficult issue to explain. What is cultural value and how does that come about? Nearly all of the history of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories, and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn't like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It's the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: no, it's us. It's us who make those meanings.

Culture is a way of getting people to that point of understanding. The work of a lot of modern culture is to say to people: you're making value. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a lavatory, in what he called an act of deliberate aesthetic indifference, what he was saying was, "look, I can put anything in an art gallery, and I can get you to engage with that thing in a way which makes it valuable." He was quite clearly saying that it's the transaction between you and it, and this context, which creates the value.

This is something that anyone who deals with world finances would probably understand; value is conferred and the result of a system of confidences among people. But it is not something that religions generally understand. It is certainly not something that fundamentalists understand. For me, so many of the really critical bottleneck type problems of our time come from that difficulty of understanding — that it's humans that make the value in things. It didn't get there, it wasn't in there, it isn't there all the time, it wasn't made by somebody else and it's left there for us to find it. We made it. We put it there.

The engagement with culture is a way of understanding that. Of course, art history of the past has always used it to buttress that old idea — ah yes, Michelangelo's Pieta is beautiful because these proportions have some kind of divine golden mean type resonance, and it communicates through to us — the value is in the thing and we're like a radio receiver. That transmitter/receiver model is an old picture which I don't accept any more. The value is in the transaction. The object itself can be almost irrelevant — as was Duchamp's lavatory. He could have chosen a spade, or a bicycle wheel, in fact. What he did was create the situation where he said, here, viewer, come in and make some value. And a lot of 20th century art has been about that — about reminding us that we make things valuable — that they don't preexist in a valuable state.

 


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