Stephen Meredith argues a thesis that seems to me correct, important, and widely overlooked—the triple crown in the Interesting Assertions sweepstakes. It is that the scientific attitude must respect the nonscientific grounds of its actions, or else it shall slide into a dehumanizing instrument of power.
Let me specify the chain of causes: Ideas in the arts and humanities sometimes inspire technology, which then challenges science. Architecture is an obvious example: The gothic pointed arch and ribbed vault of the mid-twelfth century were invented to beautify God’s houses and express yearning and transcendence; Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis stands behind them. Engineers responded to the aesthetic needs of architecture (of course, medieval engineer and medieval architect were often the same man). Science is still unsure, today, why gothic masterworks stand up.
This scientific potency of the arts and humanities is often neglected, and at a great loss not only to our collective knowledge but to our spiritual well-being, too. Knowledge is a continuum; a man has one mind, not many. One mind, one integrated whole. People don’t so much have many interests as many expressions of one deep interest or tendency, desire, worldview. The fragmentation and specialization we have insisted on in recent generations, that crowning glory of the Bureaucratic-Academic Complex, is a spiritual tragedy.
Here is an example of the forcefulness of our integrated minds, drawn from my own experience. I’ve always admired the great archeologist and scholar William Foxwell Albright. I was an undergraduate when I first read Albright’s The Archaeology of Palestine: From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940), where he writes as a scholar and a Christian. He includes a brief discussion of a Mesopotamian text in which a general’s wife or consort tries to murder him: In her left hand she took a mallet, in her right hand a sword, in both hands a peg. Albright reads the fragment not as describing a sequence of events but as an illustration of a tolerance (or deliberate use) of contradiction in ancient literature, perhaps designed to create a “shimmering” effect—one might picture the woman with a mallet in one hand and a sword in the other—or with a peg in each hand. Perhaps the two images are intended to shimmer back and forth in the listener’s or reader’s mind.
We understand the precise meaning of logic. Using axioms, hypotheses, and a rule of inference (to generate new truths from old), we work toward a goal or theorem; the finished logical sequence is a proof of the theorem. But ever since reading Albright (in fact, since long before—he allowed my misty thoughts to coalesce), I’ve studied nonlogical or counterlogical (or contralogical) alternatives to logic—thought chains that are just as coherent and sound as logical proofs but are sound according to different rule-sets from those of logic.
As a graduate student in Bible studies, I developed two thesis topics (wrote on neither)—each connected to contralogical thinking. One centered on tricola, the use of three parallel words or phrases, in the Psalms: We’re familiar with parallelism (a:a′) and four-part chiastic parallelism (a, b : b′, a′), but some psalms and other poetic passages center on three-part contralogical verses of the form a:b:c, where either a:b or b:c makes sense as a unit. But of course one can’t read a:b and b:c simultaneously. (Anyone who is interested should consider Psalms 6:3; notice the placement of the massoretic etnach!—which divides the verse “in half.”) My claim, which I still believe several generations later, was that parallelism is too narrow a way to understand classical Hebrew poetry.
My second thesis topic (developed in my book Judaism and elsewhere) led farther, into technology. At several crucial narrative moments, the Bible describes dreams without calling them dreams. They are presented as mere narrative incidents, and (as such) make no sense. But when we see them as dreams (and dreams have always been understood to be contralogical), they make perfect sense. These ideas are fundamental to my own reading of the Bible, but they also led onward to a software project, which led onward to a theoretical (either scientific or philosophical, in the philosophy-of-mind sense) investigation of thought and the mind, culminating only now in a book that I am completing.
I’ll now briefly discuss the biblical passages, the software, and the larger project.
On several occasions the Bible says: Here is what happened that night. Naturally we understand the narrative that follows as a report of objective reality. Biblical Hebrew has a word for dream, and uses it often. Yet those night narratives that are not called dreams can be strikingly dreamlike. The text lets the events speak for themselves.
Thus Jacob has nearly reached home after a self-imposed exile of many years (Gen. 32:25–33). In a strange story that reads just like (but is not called) a dream, Jacob is dragged into the past, to the crucial last scene of his adolescence.
He expects to meet his older brother Esau the next day, and is scared to death. Years earlier he had cheated Esau out of a highly prized blessing meant for the firstborn son, for Esau. Esau might still be angry, and with his band of warlike followers could easily destroy Jacob and his camp. For Jacob, it is a supremely tense night; and that same night he is set upon by, and struggles until dawn with, a stranger. The Bible can’t quite bring this stranger into focus. Sometimes he is called “a man”; sometimes he seems to be the Lord himself. When Jacob demands his name, the answer is, “Why this asking about my name?” After night-long struggles, Jacob is winning. The stranger demands to be released. Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The stranger blesses him and escapes.
The abruptness and fog of the night battle are strikingly dreamlike. So is the fact that Jacob has been pulled deep into the past, to the moment when he stole a blessing and escaped far away to his mother’s family. In adolescence, Jacob had struggled (mentally) with his elderly father and older brother. His parents and older brother were the authorities in his life. Father, brother, and the Lord himself (who forbids cheating, lying, and stealing, and whom Jacob also defied) are all wrapped up in the dangerous figure who attacks Jacob. Jacob relives his long-ago struggle—which ended with his extracting a blessing against his father’s will. The relived version ends with Jacob extracting a blessing from his dangerous attacker.
These literary observations lead to software—via an observation about the mind that I have worked on since my student days long ago. Human thought is dynamic, not static; it moves along a cognitive spectrum, from so-called high-focus, alert, logical thought to the low-focus, contralogical thought of drowsiness and dreaming. Over the course of a day, we descend the spectrum (like shimmying down a rope) from top to bottom. Low-focus thought is—loosely speaking—free-associative. Free association is a nonlogical rule for constructing thought sequences.
But free association is only a rough approximation of down-spectrum, low-focus, contralogical thought. The emergence of emotion as a major element of thought is crucial as we move down-spectrum; so too is the transfer of our main attention from events in the outside world to events within the mind. Emotions are more powerful, more “massive” than thoughts; they linger in the mind and exercise strong attraction over thought—bending thought streams around them as a massive object warps the path of a comet or any space-body. Therefore a person who is frightened (walking down a dark, unknown, ominous-seeming city street, for example) is likely to interpret perceptions (What’s that noise? Who is that person?) in a frightening sense. A joyful person is likely to interpret his thoughts and the things around him joyfully. Of course most moods and emotions are far more subtle and nuanced than fear or joy. But they have a similar effect on thought (a thought being a perception, recollection, or idea not merely recalled or perceived but concocted out of raw materials by the mind itself). Emotions are adjectives that modify the self: They modify our view of our own thoughts and everything around us.
Thus down-spectrum, low-focus thought isn’t mere free association. (Or, to put it differently, free association has more structure than first appears.) Low-focus, down-spectrum thought is a contralogical thought style in which each thought overlaps the previous, and the next thought is suggested by the previous thought and suggests the next in turn—and all thoughts overlap (are suggested or modified by) the governing mood or emotion. This governing mood is the implicit theme. Low-focus contralogical thought—theme-circling thought—is like a musical theme-and-variations where the theme is inferred rather than stated.
And the cognitive spectrum doesn’t merely describe the evolution of our thinking over a day. It also describes the evolution of characteristic thought styles (styles of thought change just as styles of dress, art, speech, and culture generally change) over the several millennia separating biblical thought from our own. The books of the Bible and other ancient literature were recorded at a different frequency, so to speak, from that of modern thought—in a lower-spectrum, more contralogical style. If we play back these passages at our own modern frequency, the results are distorted.
Artificial intelligence and software science has always sought to produce software with human-mind-like intelligence. A fascinating project—so long as we remember that software can only simulate a mind, never be a mind; can never feel, understand, or be conscious. Suppose you built thought-sequence-constructing software with a “focus” knob? As you twiddled the knob from high focus to low, your software would show a decreasing tendency to be logical and increasingly tend to free-associate thematically, contralogically. At some point between halfway down and the bottom, it would pass through the “creative zone” in which new analogies are discovered. In fact, it might do all sorts of interesting, useful things.
Literature and scholarship inspire new technology. Technology challenges science. We neglect any part of the process at our peril. Our gross neglect, nowadays, of literature and scholarship has many bad effects. Ignorance is one. A long-term withering of the whole structure of human intellectual progress is another.
David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale University and the author of many books, including Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale) and the forthcoming Tides of Mind: Uncovering the Spectrum of Consciousness (Norton).