A Gift to Be Simple

July 28, 2019

Einstein's genius is sometimes attributed to his knack for seeing the world like a child and posing questions that only a child would think to ask. What would I see in the mirror if I were traveling as fast as light? Why do I feel weightless when I fall? And so forth. There was another side to Einstein, of course -- the practical side that landed him a job in the Swiss patent office when no academic institution would hire him. He was able to translate his child-like musings into the rigorous language of mathematics and thereby dismantle Newton's "clockwork" universe of absolute time and space. 

Like a child taking apart a clock, Einstein was never quite able to put the universe back together again. His work in formulating relativity theory and in laying the foundations of quantum mechanics was all accomplished in the first 20 years of his career. He spent the next 30 years in a fruitless quest for a unified field theory that would account for all the known physical forces in the universe. Many of his colleagues thought Einstein had gone down a blind alley in refusing to come to terms with the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics, which governs subatomic particles. "God does not play dice," he grumbled. What he found most troubling was that the behavior of subatomic particles could only be understood in relation to an observer. He had no qualms about jettisoning absolute time and space, but he was not prepared to dispense with objective reality, i.e., a world that exists independently of an observer. 

It would never occur to a child to remove himself from the world he finds himself in. A small child playing hide-and-seek will often cover his eyes and assume no one can see him. He has not yet learned to imagine the world through the eyes of another person so he can hide himself from their view. Playing hide-and-seek is one of countless ways we learn to see the world as others do; in time, we come to adopt a whole world view. This process is essential to our ability to live with others in the world, but perhaps inevitably we stop seeing things for ourselves. We no longer ask the naive questions that enabled Einstein to see out of the box Newton had put us in. So now how do we see outside Einstein's box?

"It took me four years to paint like Raphael," Picasso once said, "but a lifetime to paint like a child." Substitute "see" for "paint," because that's what Picasso is really talking about here. It can take a lifetime to see once again as a child, to see as we actually see and not see as we think. 

The philosopher Douglas Harding was hiking in the Himalayas as a young man when all of a sudden he stopped thinking and started seeing things as they actually appeared to him. His most startling discovery was that he had no head. He could see arms and legs and a torso, but they didn't appear to be attached to anything. In the place of honor normally occupied by what he thought of as his head, there was a vast empty space filled with earth and sky and snow-capped mountain peaks. "I had lost a head and gained a world," he wrote in "On Having No Head."

We imagine we are contained in an immense three-dimensional space called the world, but that it not the way we experience it. What we actually see is that the world, if anything, is contained within us. We believe we pass through time, but time as we actually experience it passes through us. This may sound like the height of narcissism, but it's really the opposite. A narcissist experiences the world as a backdrop for the high drama of self, whereas the realist sees that one's true self is nothing other than the world.

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