Posted on January 26, 2018

The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it.

This is at the famous beginning of Alexandr Solzhenitzyn’s Gulag Archipelago. And then the next sentence delivers a devastating blow:

Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.”

Welcome to the real world.

“We all are a centre of our own universe.” This is a very deep and beautiful truth. “We all live in our own universe.” Also true perhaps, when taken in the right sense. But then the worrying next step, from insight-giving truth to misleading falsehood: “We all create our own universe.” If this were true then what Solzhenitzyn described in his second sentence would not be possible. It would be impossible that your universe, your created world, everything you believe in, gets shattered. And yet, this is possible. So what do we make of this?

How do we distinguish between what is true and what is delusion? Even if you believe that you create your own reality, couldn’t we then at least agree that other people can be deluded about reality? For instance, if you firmly believe that you can create your own reality, and I deny this, wouldn’t you say that you are right and I am wrong? Got you! So there is such a thing as being right and wrong about how things are, isn’t there?

Here is a useful definition of reality, from science fiction writer Philip K. Dick.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

Reality is what hits you on the head. Reality is what makes you suffer. Reality is what’s telling you that you are wrong about something. Reality is what scares the shit out of you when disaster strikes in your life. Reality for Solzhenitzyn was when his brigade commander asked for his pistol, and next two GPU-NKVD counterintelligence officers jumped at him and ripped his insignia from his shoulders. This is how he got arrested on the Eastern Front, near the Baltic Sea, in the last months of the Second World war where he served as an officer. Reality is what has the power to shatter all our certainties and illusions.

Reality is also the unusual courage and humanity of Solzhenitzyn’s brigade commander, who, right after the arrest, addresses him, now a non-person, and asks him whether he has a friend on the First Ukrainian Front. And then Solzhenitzyn knows the reason for his arrest: the correspondence with a school friend. And next a miracle happens. The colonel reaches across the line that separates the free from the soon-to-be-imprisoned, shakes his hand, and says in a fearless voice, as if he is not speaking to an enemy of the people who has just been stripped of his rank: “I wish you happiness, Captain.” Solzhenitzyn adds a remark in parentheses: the most surprising thing is that one can be a human being despite everything.

When you receive scientific training – my training was mainly in logic and computer science – a key part of the learning is how to expose oneself to and recover from clashes with reality. You believe you have a theorem and write down an attempt at a mathematical proof, and a colleague spots a flaw in your reasoning. You propose an extension of game theory and a reviewer finds fault with your paper. You carefully design and write a computer program, only to discover that it has subtle bugs that hamper proper execution of its given task. In each and every case there is you, honing your skill, and there is reality yelling at you: not yet good enough. And by incorporating the feedback from reality, by redesigning and trying again, we finally become master of our chosen field in science.

I perceived the academic world I lived in as a bubble constructed out of earnest scientific inquiry mixed with ironic distance from the rest of society. Inside were we, the well-educated, the well-informed elite, often with a certain smugness about our good taste and sophisticated wit, always keen to maintain a bit of distance from what was outside. Outside were they, the less educated, those who had flunked their exams and hadn’t made it into our charmed circle for lack of talent or determination. Outside also were the fools who were making a mess of the rest of the world. We were willing to admit that there was some foolishness inside our bubble, too. We didn’t mind to be honest about that. But that was like the spot of yin within the yang: just an accent of chaos to make us more appreciative of the benign order that protected us.

So there you have it. Science, in all its branches, is our most sophisticated and objective means to investigate reality. And at the same time, scientists – many of them – cultivate this stance of ironic detachment from reality, afraid of making claims about how we should lead our lives. Science is the most conspicuous product of enlightenment and modernism, while the common attitude among scientists is more aptly described as postmodern. Look up the Wikipedia entry on postmodernism to check for yourself that the attitude of skepticism and irony described there gives a fairly accurate picture of the world view of many sophisticated intellectuals.

These days, I am spending more time with poets and playwrights and mystics than with scientists and academics, and I can imagine my former colleagues – if they still follow my posts – getting a bit worried about my mental stability. To be truly creative, one has to be willing to mix a fair measure of foolishness and chaos with the orderly dictates of reason. I am willing to do that now, and I am thoroughly enjoying the process. Also, I am making conscious efforts to step in and out of bubbles. But it is still super scary for me to venture into territory where I fear I might lose touch with reality.