4 Suicides and 2 Murders

A regular theme here is that those investigating the limits to knowledge often get close to “madness”, even tip over into paranoia or worse and do so either temporarily or irrecoverably depending on the kind of support and understanding they get, or the others that become collateral damage. Such a recurring theme, that I have a euphemism to refer to it as:

“There, but for grace, go we all.”

There is also an element that it is necessary to at least get close to the edge and to witness the source of madness, to experience it as part of truly understanding. But that comes with obvious risks. And, let’s be clear, this is not some kind of new finding. It’s as old as mythology itself that our genius / heroes go on quests for the source of all knowledge, get more than the enlightenment their epiphany bargained for and often don’t get out sane or even alive. And it’s as real in the formal pursuit of would-be scientific knowledge as it is in the romantic humanities. In fact the Romantics often took / take themselves deliberately close to the edge by artificial means. (Simon Schama – The Romantics, currently showing. David Attenborough(!) reading “Tables Turned” from which I often quote “We murder to dissect”.)

In my own personal quest, hearing that the brilliant Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide is as old as Jacob Bronowski’s (1972) Ascent of Man. (The Auschwitz meme too, though I digress, but only slightly.) How mad can we get?

Boltzmann is just one of the self-inflicted deaths investigated along with those of Cantor, Gödel and Turing by David Malone in his (2007 BBC4 / 2008 BBC2) “Dangerous Knowledge“. (Playlist of 5 parts on Daily Motion arranged here by Richard Emerson at Ancient World Org. Original Vimeo version here.)

By a double coincidence Richard had pointed to that film in a comment about my reading of Karl Sigmund “Exact Thinking in Demented Times” and lo and behold, we see Sigmund as a contributor to the film in the first two minutes, briefly anonymous initially but more explicitly later in the Gödel episode and more. (Interestingly, Louis Sass is also a major contributor and he’s someone Iain McGilchrist pays particular credit to in his “The Matter With Things”)

[More coincidences – for Richard:

The ticket strip for my daily commute last time I was working in Oslo, was the bookmark for my recent read of McGilchrist – on which I wrote:

“*Add Sass to book list !*” ]

It’s the “denial” that creates the mental tension and crises – whether internally or externally (*) inflicted. And let’s not forget McGilchrist was / is a practicing psychiatrist. These are not “coincidences”.

Anyway, as I noted in my read of Sigmund, all these human stories – of suicides and murders, and of paranoias short of these – are pretty much the story of where “knowledge” went wrong in the 20thC. The denial of sacred nature beyond objective science. The whole of my 20 year blogging project. Approximately from Pirsig to McGilchrist via The Vienna Circle, calling all stations. Next stop Oxford.


(*) The tension or denial can arise internally dealing with the two (L+R) views in our own heads and/or externally when our own internal intuitive & integrated (L+R) conflicts with the established received wisdom of the dominant (L) social pattern.

Other / Meta / Content:

David Malone is someone referenced here before. A regular host/interviewer at “How The Light Gets In” Hay on Wye, previous interviewer of Iain McGilchrist, and maker of “Why Are We Here?

He refers to “the slippage” of thinking between the explicit and the intuitive. For me that’s Hofstadter’s “conceptual slippage” in “Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies” & “Tabletop“. And Hofstadter is the preface to Sigmund’s book, and a big interpreter of Gödel.

Loved the characterisation of Russell’s Principia as “like 10,000 tonnes of intellectual concrete poured over the cracks in mathematics and logic”. Brilliant!

Mentioned often before how things might have been different now if several people had grabbed the opportunity of their paths crossing at the 1930  (2nd) Königsberg conference on the exact sciences. The denial “Nobody wants to face up to the consequences of Gödel”. And that Catch-22 from Gödel – that humans have (RH) intuition beyond logical (LH) rules, but you cannot prove that to the satisfaction of LH rules. Gödel & Wittgenstein ships in the night, and more. Thank Johnny von Neumann for noticing or we may never have known even now.

It’s not “a problem” in need of a solution – it’s a capability we humans can use, and would use if only the LH will stop denying us – are we grown-up enough to face this or will we fall back on the (apparent) certainties of scientific logic?


14 thoughts on “4 Suicides and 2 Murders”

  1. It brings to mind the classic narrative of “Faust” in the German tradition, the pact with the devil for full knowledge. And also Dante’s story about Ulysses killed by forces of nature in his hubristic quest for all knowledge. Both primary stories in big national traditions.

    And btw. there’s also an interesting thread of thought in Orthodox theology that the romantic elevation of the “genius” in the 18-hundreds in Europe was exactly a replacement for what used to be the place for the sacred ineffable and mystery. Thus amplifying the LH tilt in the culture.

    And not to mention Nietzsche’s quotes and prophecies for the 19 hundreds.

    It’s interesting how the “Cultural LH” is starting to address its own denial though, through the scientific work of McGilchrist and others. We are getting new tools and language, to work on these things.

  2. Yes, but I’m kinda bored with finding more presentations existing stories and myths.
    It’s why I said the underlying truth is as old as mythology itself.

    I’m keener we learn the lesson and how to apply it to 21stC life

    “It’s interesting how the “Cultural LH” is starting to address its own denial though, through the scientific work of McGilchrist and others. We are getting new tools and language, to work on these things.”

    This however I don’t see – this is the problem. The LH Culture ISN’T addressing or even seeing it’s own denial. Iain has certainly rehabilitated some old tools – and I’m using his language, but I don’t see any mainstream science even noticing? This I see as “the project”.

  3. It might be that I’m thinking of this more in decades or centuries. That Iain’s work might take 50+ years to be taken up into the culture (at least). And gathering relevant examples in the tradition could help build the case longer term.
    And in the bigger context, I think the initial response has been quite fast and affirmative. Back to the “depth charge” idea.

  4. Ah, yes. Whether Depth Charges or Surgical Strikes – I still think in terms of planning and strategies for what these need to be.
    (There are whole universities helping people to read “the great books” which are filled with these stories already. Not sure I can add much to that.)

    In terms of “changing the world” I’m a fan of Schumpeter and Kondratiev-waves (and Kuhn) – 3 generations or ~70/80 year cycles.
    (25 years to get noticed, 25 years to get people to change, 25 years where it become second nature.)
    It’s all got a bit confused by ubiquitous speed of light communications – but it’s humans that need to change our thought patterns.
    In fact slowing down communications is one of my strategies 🙂

  5. Quote: Boltzmann is just one of the self-inflicted deaths investigated along with those of Cantor, Gödel and Turing by David Malone in his (2007 BBC4 / 2008 BBC2) “Dangerous Knowledge“. (Playlist of 5 parts on Daily Motion arranged here by Richard Emerson at Ancient World Org.) Victims of Vanity.
    Another famous madness victim and Nobel price laureate is John Nash we all know from the feature film”A Beautiful Mind” He was also a victim of vanity but he survived. His life ended very sad in a car crash having a taxi ride.

  6. I have trouble seeing it as vanity? You may have to elaborate why you use that term?

    But yes, these were just the 4 in this collection – and as you say Nash’s demise was slightly different even if he suffered similar mental “crises”, and I’m sure there were many more. (I see you use the word “madness” here too – we’re being colloquial / generic / non-specific here about the precise condition.)

    But, I’m also looking at the natural pattern not counting the specific cases here.

  7. “It’s all got a bit confused by ubiquitous speed of light communications – but it’s humans that need to change our thought patterns.
    In fact slowing down communications is one of my strategies 🙂”

    Great point, and a good argument for stepping back and looking at the bigger picture at times. Getting caught in a minute by minute frenzy on the internet is not very helpful for understand bigger trends. And the bigger trends might follow much more timeless and ancient patterns of gradual change and cycles. Reading up on history might be stabilizing as well. Technology has upended cultures many times before.

  8. @Psybertron Vanity in the context of wanting to be closer to God. In those times established scientists were the stars at the firmament regarding science. They organised themselves in royal societies and kept each other in check this way. Close to devine royalty.
    In the case of Georg Cantor he believed that his mathematical understanding of infinity would bring him closer to God. I am satisfied by understanding dynamic quality as the potential energy capable of giving infinite choice which is of course totally abstract. This is my way of approaching dynamic quality. Vanity comes from the longing for recognition. It’s a force that can be abused by either giving to much or by giving to little till the level of no recognition at all total ignoring well earned results due to hard work. This is how our tower of babel is functioning. Systems of recognition. Either monetary or with degrees and prices give often a combination of the two..Of those results the ones with the most recognition by the masses end up as stars at the firmament. These stars are used for mental orientation by the masses. The talented young John Nash became a star at the firmament at a very young age. This made him lose his orientation. This madness. Stars are there to help the masses orientate. The meta problem lies in the question; How do the stars orientate? This question is shifting between genuine stars and institutionalised stars. Genuine stars are still grounded and keep the firmament anchored. Institutionalised stars are hanging on skyhooks(a concept I borrow from Daniel Dennett). Institutionalised stars on skyhooks are victims of vanity. They are not really grounded. They are put there by politics or entertainment to satisfy the masses. That’s why Integrity in combination with stardom is a scarce virtue. When there are to much stars on the firmament without real credibility the whole construct is about to collapse because none is keeping it up anymore. I believe we are slowly witnessing the emergence of cracks in our firmament.

  9. Hi Eddo, been away a few days.

    I don’t see wanting to be closer to “understanding how the world actually works” [ie to “God” in different contexts] is remotely “vain”.
    It would be vain to suggest you were actually there, in this god-like position, in possession of some privileged perspective – but it’s natural human curiosity and drive to want to get closer.

    I’m not concerned with social value (recognition) of gaining an enlightened view – this is pure Freud / Maslow – drive to self-actualisation over extrinsic reward.

    You said “I believe we are slowly witnessing the emergence of cracks in our firmament.” – I think we saw those in the 60’s? – the firmament hasn’t been “firm” for decades. (This is the frustration I have of you taking us back to these old stereotypes – “we’re well beyond this” as I often say?)

  10. There is a certain hubris in the striving for mastery, which I suppose the gods may punish. In his older work, McGilchrist quotea a description of Prometheus as “a cheat and a thief. . . under his tutelage, men became stealers of the divinity that lies round about them, whose temerity brings unmeasureable and unforeseen misfortune upon them.” (p. 384, The Master and His Emissary)

  11. Yes, like I say, no shortage of ancient stories – “older than mythology itself” I’ve often said.

    The warning that it’s dangerous to one’s mental wellbeing to misunderstand our full knowledge of reality is one thing – something naturally sacred to be treated with care – but to start invoking a God actively meting out punishment, we have moved into the realm of supernatural theism.

  12. In the relevant section, McGilchrist refers to Louis Sass’ Madness and Modernism, linking the symptoms of schizophrenia with the modern condition and its overemphasis on left-brain thinking. To invoke the revenge of the gods is, of course, a metaphor for the consequences of ignoring and inevitably violating the sacred.

  13. Sass was pretty central to this post, next on my reading list (after Solms).

    Metaphor is fine until you invoke actual agent / actions 🙂

  14. Still, the idea that there is no greater agency than ourselves, and thus no “betweenness” of agency except between us and other human beings (and perhaps the more endearing species of mammal) has set the course of modernity. We don’t have to posit a “hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin” (the phrase is from National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata”) to contemplate the idea of kickback from “the sacred,” a force recognized in Indigenous spirituality among many others, but roundly ridiculed by scientific materialism. Given that we have involved ourselves in the metaphor of kickback, what we mean exactly by “the sacred” is worth asking. Do we really want to blame climate change or antibiotic resistance entirely on a squabble between brain hemispheres, as if one of the hemispheres had that kind of power to rebuke the other? Or do we put these things down to a sort of psycho-physical parallelism, where the natural world echoes the activity of the brain hemispheres in some weird way? Or do we move on to a form of panpsychism in which the natural; world is an active participant, in ways we have yet to understand?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.