The Bridge Between Science And Literature
by Andrew Crumey
Talk given at the Genoa Science Festival, October 2006
In 1848, a year before his death, Edgar Allan Poe gave a public lecture in New York. Not many people came, because Poe was not at all famous, and his topic was an esoteric one. What he outlined to his audience was a new theory of cosmology. Poe had been working on it for some time, and felt sure that it would be remembered as his greatest achievement - in fact he imagined himself taking a place in the pantheon of great scientists alongside Newton.
Poe published his theory in a book called Eureka, his last published work. Scientists ignored it completely, and one literary reviewer dismissed it as "hyperbolic nonsense". It was only after his death that Poe began to acquire the reputation he now has as one of America's greatest writers, but scientists remained unaware of Eureka until the 1980s, when astronomer Edward Harrison noticed that Poe had in fact found the solution to a great cosmological riddle.
To understand the problem, let's begin by supposing the universe to be infinite, with stars spread randomly through it. This is how Kepler and Newton imagined the universe to be, but it means that if you aim your eye at any point in the sky, you ought to find yourself looking in the direction of a star. It doesn't matter how densely or loosely the stars are spread; as long as there are infinitely many of them, in an infinite universe, your line of sight should always hit one. And this means that the night sky should not be black - it ought to be completely filled with starlight.
This is known as Olbers' Paradox, and in the nineteenth century many people offered solutions, saying for example that there must be something in space that weakens and blocks starlight, which is why we aren't blinded by all those infinite stars every night. We now know that can't be right, because of the conservation of energy. If starlight gets blocked then it has to be turned into heat, so although this might explain why the night sky is dark, you would still expect space to be very hot, which it isn't.
Poe, however, offered a different answer. The problem, he realised, is the assumption of a universe that is both infinitely large and infinitely old. But what if our observable universe - meaning everything we see right now - had a beginning in time?
Let's suppose, for example, that the universe began a million years ago. Light can only travel a certain distance in one million years, so any star further away would still be invisible to us. And that solves Olbers' Paradox. If there are stars so far away that their light hasn't yet reached us, then our observable universe only contains a finite number of stars, emitting a finite amount of light which is not enough to illuminate our night sky.
This was what Poe told his audience in New York, and what he wrote in Eureka. And although his timescale was wrong, his logic was flawless. Astronomers now accept that Poe gave the first correct solution of Olbers' Paradox. The darkness of the night sky is a key piece of evidence for the Big Bang.
This sounds uncannily prophetic, but Poe was not unique. Think, for instance, of HG Wells's novel The Time Machine, in which time is described as the fourth dimension in addition to the three of space. Wells's book was published in 1895, a full ten years before Einstein's first paper on relativity theory.
My talk is called "the bridge between science and literature", and that might seem to suggest that science and literature are two completely separate things with only a slim connection between them. Really, though, I want to argue that while literature and science are certainly different, they are two aspects of an underlying unity, like the two banks of a river.
I have a long-standing personal interest in this, because I started my career as a theoretical physicist, then became a novelist. That strikes some people as an unusual switch, but it seemed perfectly natural to me, because I already knew of many writers from the past who took an active interest in physics. It's really not so surprising. At a practical level, theoretical physics and novel writing both involve sitting at a desk, trying to come up with a good idea. At a deeper level, physics is concerned with questions of existence and reality, and these are concerns of the novelist too. Physics is the study of the universe and how it works. Many writers and philosophers have felt a similar striving towards the universal.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is one of the best examples. For years he planned to write a "novel about the universe", and although it never came to fruition, his poetic drama Faust is certainly universal in scope and ambition. It is also, on one level, an archetypal mad-scientist story. Yet Goethe's proudest achievement wasn't literary. He did a great deal of scientific research, and reckoned his theory of colour would earn him a place in the scientific hall of fame alongside Newton's.
Dante was another universalist. The Divine Comedy is based on medieval cosmology, dictated by the natural forces of God and gravity, mediated by angels who were as real to Dante as photons are to us. In Paradiso we find descriptions of scientific experiments and a discussion of the Moon's composition, about which Dante had his own theory.
I already knew of cases like these when I first took an interest in the connections between literature and science, but over the years, my mental checklist of writer-scientists gradually grew. Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost were keen amateur astronomers. George Eliot was an avid reader of science books. The poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Paul Valery both wrote speculative essays about the universe. And of course there are the many literary figures who were scientists in a formal sense: the entomologist Nabokov, for example, or the chemist Primo Levi.
We could define various categories of scientifically connected writers. The first and broadest is where the connection is tangential, perhaps even accidental, but nevertheless interesting. For example, Jonathan Swift claimed in Gulliver's travels that Mars has two Moons. It does - but they weren't discovered until more than a century after Swift's death.
This sounds like another remarkable scientific prophecy similar to those of Poe or Wells, but in Swift's case we have to regard the prediction as a lucky hit. The idea of Mars having two Moons actually started with the astronomer Kepler, based on the fact that Jupiter was known to have four moons, while Earth has only one. Mars lies between Earth and Jupiter, and two moons would make the nice numerical sequence 1,2,4, with the next planet Saturn being predicted to have eight moons. Completely wrong, of course, but interesting that this piece of astronomical numerology should find its way into Gulliver's Travels - and remarkable that the Mars prediction turned out to be right, even though Saturn is now known to have more than 40 moons, while Jupiter has over 60.
Jonathan Swift is in our first and loosest category of literary-scientific connections, and here too we could place James Joyce, whose novel Finnegans Wake contains the line "three quarks for Muster Mark". Quarks are the smallest particles of matter and they combine in threes to form the protons and neutrons which make up the nuclei of atoms - but Finnegans Wake was published in 1939 and the particles were only given their name in 1964, so is this another remarkable serendipity? It seems the answer is yes and no. The physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who coined the term quark, got the name from Joyce's novel; but there has always been some controversy over whether the word should be pronounced "kwark" or "kwork", with American physicists favouring "kwork", even though the line in Finnegans Wake clearly implies "kwark", to rhyme with Mark. Gell-Mann offered an interesting explanation in his book the Quark And The Jaguar. He says that the word "kwork" had already occurred to him as a name for the elementary particle, but he couldn't decide the best way to spell it until he was flicking through Finnegans Wake and saw the line. So the serendipity was Gell-Mann's, and it has made Finnegans Wake an important text in the history of physics.
Moving on from chance encounters like these we could consider writers who have been directly influenced by science or have somehow engaged with it in their work; and here, of course, the possibilities are vast. HG Wells is a particularly famous and obvious example, and it was Wells's awareness of scientific trends that enabled him to apparently beat Einstein by ten years. In fact there was much discussion during the nineteenth century of time as the fourth dimension, and Wells picked up on this. Einstein was wary of such talk and made no such claims when he introduced special relativity in 1905 - it was his colleague Minkowski who showed how Einstein's theory could be seen as four-dimensional, fitting it into an established intellectual tradition that had already found its way, thanks to Wells, into the science fiction.
There are also many writers who have used scientific ideas not in the sense of science fiction, but in a more metaphorical way. A fine example is Goethe, whose novel Elective Affinities takes its title from a theory of chemistry. It was believed that certain chemical elements had an inherent tendency to react with one another, and Goethe used this as a metaphor for the relationships between the characters in his story, seeing them as elements in a social experiment.
Yet Goethe also belongs to our third and most interesting category of writers who bridge science and literature. In this small but distinguished category we have writers who actually contributed to science - or tried to make a contribution. Edgar Allan Poe belongs here thanks to Eureka; Goethe's scientific work was far more extensive, covering biology and geology as well as optics.
Another writer in this category is the Persian poet Omar Khayyam, who was an astronomer by profession, and director of an observatory which determined the length of the year to unprecedented accuracy. Going even further back, we have Aristotle, who did extensive field studies of the wildlife of the eastern Mediterranean - a small organ inside sea urchins is known as Aristotle's Lantern after its discoverer, whom Charles Darwin rated one of the greatest naturalists of all times. Nor should we underestimate Aristotle's literary achievements - as well as his critical work The Poetics, which I still recommend to all creative writing students as a useful manual, Aristotle also wrote dramatic dialogues, just as Plato did; but those works are lost, and nearly all the books we have by Aristotle are essentially lecture notes taken down by his students.
Aristotle outlined a complete theory of cosmology in a book called On the Heavens, which seems to have been written while he was tutor to the young Alexander the Great. Aristotle believed our universe to be finite, enclosed by a solid sphere on which the stars are fixed. What lies beyond the sphere? Absolutely nothing. Space, said Aristotle, is something that can only exist between objects. Once you go beyond the outermost sphere there are no more objects so there can be no more space; and there can be no time either, since there is nothing that can change. Aristotle's assertion is baffling and remarkable, but it is also what many modern physicists say when asked what came before the Big Bang.
Aristotle also wondered why space has three dimensions. Physicists are still wondering about this - why not four or a hundred? Aristotle offered a wonderfully simplistic answer - he said that three is the best number because things have a beginning, a middle and an end. Modern thinking on the question hasn't really got much further than that, and follows a line of reasoning that was in fact partly anticipated by Edgar Allan Poe in Eureka.
Imagine light emanating from a lamp or a star. As the light spreads through space it gets weaker because it is being diluted across a larger and larger surface area. Johannes Kepler formulated this as a mathematical law: if you double your distance from a light source then the brightness is reduced by a factor of four, triple your distance and it weakens by a factor of nine.
Newton's law of gravity has exactly the same mathematical form; it is an "inverse square law", though Newton could not explain what gravity is, only that it works in this way. Poe conjectured that light and gravity are both really the same kind of thing, which is why they obey the same law, and modern physics agrees with this: light and gravity are considered to be caused by particles, photons and gravitons, moving at the same speed through space, so that if the sun suddenly disappeared we would stop feeling its gravity at exactly the same moment it disappeared from our sky.
But why is the law of the "inverse square" kind? In the case of light, it's because the radiation is spreading over a wider area. Poe argued that gravity spreads in the same way, and here too, modern physics agrees.
We can then think again about Aristotle's question: why does space have three dimensions? If the number were different, then the rate of spread would be different too. For example, if we lived in a universe with four dimensions of space, gravity and light would obey an inverse cube law instead of inverse square. But with a law like that, planets wouldn't be able to follow stable orbits around stars; in fact we couldn't even have stable atoms, so matter as we know it could not exist. This, then, is the modern answer to Aristotle's question: we live in three dimensions because we could not have found ourselves living in anything else. But that, of course, is still not a complete answer.
Plato offered several cosmological theories, one of which appears in Phaedo, where he says our universe is like a leather ball patched together from twelve identical pieces; in other words a dodecahedron. This sounds as outlandish as Aristotle's finite sphere, but again it has an interesting resonance in modern cosmology.
Our universe presumably cannot have an edge, but that doesn't mean the universe has to be infinite. Imagine you are inside a room that is shaped like a cube, and imagine that the walls, floor and ceiling are all mirrored. Such a scene occurs in Italo Calvino's novel If On A Winter's Night A Traveller, and the point to notice is that your prison would look infinite though of course it is really very small. Looking at any wall, you would see multiple reflections extending forever - the only practical limitiation is your eyes, and the less than perfect reflectivity of the mirrored surfaces.
Now instead of mirrors, suppose that you can walk through the walls - but if you do, you find yourself re-entering the room through the opposite wall. This is like what used to happen in the computer game PacMan, so what I am describing is often called the PacMan Universe. If you stand near one wall and push your arm through, you will see a hand coming through from the opposite wall.
You can think of this PacMan Universe as consisting of infinitely many rooms, in each of which there is a copy of you, all the copies moving identically. Or you can think of it as one room, multiplied by a trick analogous to mirrors. So another name for the PacMan Universe is the Hall Of mirrors universe. Whatever you want to call it, people have been speculating for many years that our actual universe could be of this kind. It needn't be a cube, of course. It could be any shape - including Plato's dodecahedron - but if you try and fly out through one wall you always find yourself re-entering through some other.
If our universe is inside some kind of magic room like this, how big is the room? If it was a few hundred light years across then we would see evidence for it in the night sky, because we would see identical copies of constellations mapping out the various walls. If the room were a few million light years across then we would see repeating patterns of galaxy clusters - astronomers have looked for this and found nothing. At the very largest scale, if the room were billions of light years across, then we could hope to find repeating patterns in the microwave background radiation, the so-called after-glow of the Big Bang. Astronomers have looked for this too, and a few years ago there was some excitement among devotees of the PacMan Universe when it looked as if there might be observational support for the theory. It seems, though, that if we do live in a hall of mirrors then it must be far larger than the observable universe - and that is exactly what Plato was saying in Phaedo. We live in a dodecahedral universe, he said, but our portion of it is a tiny hollow. We are, Plato wrote, like fish living in a pond, aware of the water around us but wholly oblivious to the sky above.
In looking for the bridge between science and literature, we find plenty of examples among writers from the earliest periods. The poet Lucretius, for example, gave in De Rerum Natura the most important account of Epicurean atomism. Literature, science and philosophy were overlapping activities, and the few people with access to books could acquire an education covering virtually the whole of human knowledge. Dante was evidently of this kind; the Divine Comedy shows a detailed knowledge of the astronomical theories prevalent at that time. The Aristotelian universe was still broadly accepted, but the outer sphere was no longer the limit, because Christian theology placed Heaven beyond the fixed stars. This is geometrically tricky because it seems to imply that Heaven is enormously big - in fact infinite - while the observable universe is a tiny sphere inside it. But theology added a fascinating twist: the realm beyond the outer sphere is still considered to be beyond time and space, so Heaven is really a point of no size, the Empyrean. In a 1995 book called The Poetry Of The Universe, American astrophysicist Robert Osserman points out that this construction, though hard to visualise, would nowadays be termed a four-dimensional hypersphere.
A notable writer-scientist of the eighteenth century is Voltaire. In the 1730s, Voltaire and his lover Emilie du Chatelet set up home together in the French countryside, where they began assembling a scientific laboratory. Emilie was a brilliant mathematician and was working on a translation of Newton's Principia. Voltaire had met Newton's niece while in England, and she told him the story of Newton and the apple, which Voltaire repeated in print in a popular account of Newton's theory.
The French Academy of Sciences held an annual competition, and Voltaire decided to enter. The problem was to investigate fire, and Voltaire set about trying to find whether fire has weight. He did this by burning samples of metal, measuring their weights before and after, and we now realise that he was doing the sort of thing that would lead Priestley and Lavoisier, thirty years later, to explain combustion by means of oxygen. Voltaire lacked sufficiently accurate equipment, and also perhaps a sufficiently methodical approach, to make those discoveries a generation early, but he did come to the conclusion that fire has weight, and he wrote this up in a paper. Emilie, meanwhile, decided to enter the competition too, though without telling Voltaire, and through theoretical reasoning decided - wrongly as we now know - that fire must be weightless. She too wrote up her results, and both papers were duly published in the Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences, where it was noted that it was the first time that either a woman or a poet had appeared in its pages.
From an eighteenth century point of view, a woman scientist was more remarkable than a poet scientist, but nowadays the opposite is true. Voltaire's researches strike us as an eccentric diversion from his main work, but he didn't see it that way. In the eighteenth century there were very few people who could be regarded as professional scientists; most research was done by wealthy amateurs who had the means, the time and the curiosity to investigate the world around them, so in that respect Voltaire was quite typical of his era.
Things have of course changed a great deal since then, to the extent that many people see art and science as being in some sense opposites: science is rational and dispassionate while art is intuitive and expressive. That, however, is an over-simplification. Our most familiar images of intuitive breakthrough and sudden inspiration come from science, not art: Archimedes in his bathtub and Newton beneath the apple tree. Eureka moments in art are more or less taken for granted, but when we look closely at alleged examples they are often less sudden than they seem. Mozart may well have written the overture to The Marriage Of Figaro while riding in a coach, but he had probably worked it out in his head beforehand. And while Proust certainly had a moment of epiphany involving a cup of tea, it didn't bring the whole of A La recherche du temps perdu into his head in a single instant.
Art has its calculating, deductive side, just as science allows for flashes of inspiration. In an essay called The Philosophy Of Composition, the scientifically-minded Edgar Allan Poe argued that the best poetry is also the most logical and rigorous, with pure mathematics being the ultimate model. This is so contrary to much modern thinking that many people have assumed Poe's essay was a hoax; but we should take seriously his claim that art need not be about inspiration and expression, but can be a matter of careful calculation.
Certainly, art creates an emotional and spiritual response - but artists themselves needn't feel anything. Denis Diderot summed this up in the eighteenth century as the "paradox of the actor": the best artists are those who can most convincingly fake the emotions they evoke.
We might imagine scientists as cold seekers of truth (that's certainly how some of them like to portray themselves), but the simple reality is that scientists - and artists - are humans like everyone else, subject to the same dreams, passions and anxieties we all feel. When the mathematician Andrew Wiles gained world renown by proving Fermat's Last Theorem, he was interviewed for a television program about his achievement. Describing the years of secret, solitary work he had done on the problem (afraid of alerting competitors to his progress), Wiles burst into tears on camera. The emotional investment of his labours was all too evident. But in order to appreciate what he did, we don't need to know anything about the heartache it caused him. Proust made exactly the same point about the appreciation of art. It shouldn't matter whether an artist's life was happy or wretched, he said; such biographical details may appeal to our innate curiosity about other people's lives, but they tell us nothing important about the art itself.
Evidently, the difference between art and science is not a matter of one being emotional while the other is not, any more than we can call one purely intuitive and the other a solely rational activity. Just as Poe liked to think of himself as a scientist of poetry, there are many scientists nowadays who like to emphasise the aesthetic side of their work, highlighting the beauty and creativity of science, and the wonder it evokes.
Again, though, there is a problem here. A traditional definition of art was that it was about giving pleasure through beauty, but you only need to visit any modern art gallery to see a great many things which are not beautiful, and aren't meant to be. Many artists today would say that the aim of art is not to create beauty, but to make people think. That of course is what science and philosophy do too.
What about creativity? Some scientists appear particularly eager to play up this side of their work, and I think the reasons are largely cultural. We live in an age which places enormous value on creativity and personal expression. You only need to redecorate your living room or buy a new shirt and it's a statement about your personality. Art and science are both unquestionably creative activities, but planning a holiday or cooking a meal can be pretty creative, too, and those things aren't art or science. Creativity is what makes us all human; it doesn't make us artists or scientists.
To try and resolve the muddle, let's venture again into the past. Anyone wanting to learn how to paint in fifteenth century Italy would not have been handed a brush and told to start expressing their feelings. Art was equated with craft or skill. Music in those days was considered a branch of mathematics (the other three being arithmetic, geometry and astronomy), and scienza meant any body of knowledge based on rational and verifiable principles. So painting was a scienza, with perspective drawing being a problem of geometry.
Here we see a basic and meaningful distinction between art and science. It's all in the word "verifiable". Throughout most of Western history (from ancient Greece until the late eighteenth century), the things we call art - painting, music, sculpture, literature - were believed to be based on rules and laws which were discoverable and absolute. Perspective, harmony, prosody and proportion reflected a natural order created by God, and an artist's job was to learn and apply those rules. Mathematicians and scientists faced the same task, and so did theologians.
Renaissance artists and scholars saw their task as the rediscovery of things that had already been known to the ancients, but which had been lost since the fall of the Roman empire. It was assumed that ancient people knew far more than modern people did, because they had lived at a time when the human race was still young and vigorous. Nicolaus Copernicus was very much a Renaissance man, and he justified his heliocentric model of the solar system by pointing out that Greek philosophers had already suggested the idea. In his book On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly Spheres, Copernicus even quotes by way of justification a line from Sophocles' play Elektra, describing the Sun as ruling over the planets.
Isaac Newton held similar views. He spent a huge amount of time researching the vanished Temple Of Solomon, which he believed to have contained a model of the solar system, with the sun at the centre. Newton thought the ancient Egyptians and Greeks knew the law of gravity and had left it in code; Newton had merely rediscovered it.
This idea is still part of our culture today: we see it in all those books claiming to unlock the secrets of the pyramids, or find coded messages in the Bible. What is nowadays fringe theory was until the eighteenth century accepted fact: ancient people knew more than we do. For artists, this meant the only way to learn the craft was to imitate what had been done before. We see this expressed, for example in Alexander Pope's Essay On Criticism, written in 1711, where Pope speaks of the ancient rules of poetry, "discovered not devised", which are really laws of nature. Master those laws, and you too can be a poet.
Yet the rise of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought about a new awareness of the possibility of human progress. Despite what Copernicus and Newton thought, it became increasingly obvious that new discoveries were being made that the ancients could not possibly have known about. And if there could be progress in science, there could also be progress in art: new techniques, new styles. The artist was a kind of discoverer, like the scientist, and both were discovering the laws of nature. This is the kind of intellectual atmosphere that Voltaire was working in, while doing his experiments in the 1730s. But around this time there was also a new idea rising up: the idea that art is spiritual in a way that science is not.
This was formalised by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Science, he said, gives us knowledge of nature in a purely logical and deductive way, but some people can tune directly into nature, intuitively perceiving fundamental truths. These people are artistic geniuses, their works shaped by primal natural forces. Beethoven came to be seen as the perfect embodiment of this, and Goethe was viewed in similar terms.
Goethe, as we know, was a scientist as well as an artist, but the Romantic movement was creating a division between art and science. Moreover, science was becoming increasingly specialised and professionalised, so that Goethe, unlike Voltaire, faced opposition from a newly forming academic establishment.
What the scientists were aiming for was complete objectivity. They saw nature as an assemblage of atoms obeying Newtonian laws; a view we would now call materialist and reductionist. This became the dominant trend throughout nineteenth century physics, and it led to wonderful successes that we can see all around us today. Goethe, by contrast, placed great emphasis on the human, spiritual presence in science. The experimenter, he said, is always part of the experiment.
Goethe repeated Newton's famous prism experiment but rejected Newton's conclusions, because for Goethe, colour was a human experience. In modern terms, we would say that Goethe's theory of colour was an investigation of colour perception, not light itself. For Goethe, though, it was the perception that was real.
Like Kant, Goethe thought it must be possible to have direct intuitive awareness of physical truths. He dramatises this idea very remarkably in his last novel, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, in a character called Makarie. She is an old woman who is somehow aware of the position of every object in the solar system; a kind of human planetarium. The novel's hero, Wilhelm, looks through a telescope at the planet Saturn, but is disturbed by what he sees. The magnified view, he says, is false: the real view is the one we have with our own unaided senses.
A kind of parallel science was forming in which the emphasis was on spirit and experience. Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka, subtitled "an essay on matter and spirit", belongs to this tradition, which went against the mainstream of orthodox science but produced, in Poe's solution of Olbers' Paradox, a genuine achievement.
Materialism and reductionism were two assumptions which this parallel science repeatedly challenged, emphasising holism and spirit instead. In modern times, James Lovelock's Gaia theory is of this kind, seeking to regard Earth as a single self-sustaining organism. The theory was given its name by Lovelock's friend, the novelist William Golding, and whatever its scientific merits, we can see that it belongs to a tradition that has been attractive to writers and artists during the last two hundred years.
In my own field of theoretical physics, there have been repeated attempts to construct holistic theories, and there has been much discussion about the role of human consciousness. Goethe said that the experimenter is always part of the experiment, and we are familiar with this in the context of quantum theory. Goethe's close friend Friedrich Schelling - who helped Goethe perform optical experiments - proposed the existence of a "world soul", and argued that the universe is in a state of perpetual evolution towards a state of all-pervading consciousness. In recent years, physicists such as Frank Tipler and Paul Davies have made similar speculations, wondering if the universe as a whole can be conceived as a computer.
Many people have highlighted parallels between modern theoretical physics and the religious traditions of Asia, such as Buddhism. In a recent book called The Universe In A Single Atom, the Dalai Lama has written very lucidly about this. In his book, the Dalai Lama emphasises that Buddhism is not a theistic philosophy, but is rather based on the idea of a spiritual interconnection between all things. A similar sense of comsic interconnectedness without the overall control of an intelligent designer runs through Paul Davies's new book The Goldilocks Effect, in which he speculates that the cause of our universe's existence lies in the future, not the past. Davies imagines that our universe might be evolving through natural laws towards a state of consciousness, just as Goethe's friend Schelling did.
How are we to account for this apparent harmony between physics and oriental philosophy? I would argue that the roots are historical. In the eighteenth century we saw the rise of materialism, the idea that we are all made of atoms proceeding according to Newtonian laws, so that even our minds must ultimately be mechanical. This philosophy was celebrated by Diderot in his wonderful novels, Jacques The Fatalist and D'Alembert's Dream, and the materialist philosophy has remained a bedrock of science. Neurobiologists today believe that consciousness is a process caused by the neurons in our brains. They cannot explain how consciousness works, but remain committed to the idea that if it has any explanation at all it must be essentially a materialist one.
Nevertheless the idea that our brain is simply like a mechanical clock or a computer is clearly inadequate. So after the naïve materialism of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw two kinds of reaction. On the one hand there is the path of Goethe, Schelling and so on: the idea that there exists some kind of world spirit, collective consciousness or universal ego. In the writings of Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Jung this received many different names, but the common theme is a belief that mental activity is not a material phenomenon at all. Instead, it is mind that is the ultimate reality, and the external world is a projection of mind.
The other way of reacting against the naïve materialism of the eighteenth century was to retain the idea that everything is somehow mechanical, but to reject crude reductionism and instead emphasise complexity and holism. In fact we see this in Marxism, which was an attempt to create a theory of history based on nineteenth century materialist science. Friedrich Engels was particularly interested in science - he even proposed a solution to Olbers' Paradox, though he didn't get the right answer that Poe arrived at. Engels defined dialectics as "the science of interconnections", so dialectical materialism is the attempt to see the universe as a completely interconnected system proceeding according to discoverable laws.
Surprisingly, then, Marxism and Buddhism have much in common, viewed purely as philosophies, since both can be considered as emphasising holism and interconnectedness. But while Marxism denies the objective existence of spirit, saying that everything is matter, Buddhism denies the existence of matter, saying that everything is spirit. So in this latter respect Buddhism more closely resembles the idealist philosophy of Hegel, Schopenhauer etc; and we should of course remember that those philosophers knew about oriental religion and were to some extent influenced by it.
When we reach the birth of quantum theory in the nineteen twenties, we find young physicists who have read Marx, Nietzsche, Goethe and countless other writers, and who are faced with the problem of understanding new phenomena that cannot be explained using Newtonian laws. They come up with a new theory that is not Newtonian, and their interpretation of this theory is rooted in their personal philosophies.
Heisenberg explained his uncertainty principle by saying that any measurement alters and affects whatever is being measured. Goethe said this, of course; but Heisenberg went further, saying that the thing being measured does not truly exist until the observation is made. As an authority for this idea he cited Fichte, a friend and contemporary of Schelling who belonged to the "world spirit" school of idealist philosophy.
Another striking instance is Wolfgang Pauli, a great physicist responsible for numerous important discoveries. He became a friend and disciple of Carl Jung, and it seems that it was through conversations with Pauli that Jung came up with the idea of synchronicity. I mention this episode in my novel Mobius Dick, and I shall repeat the explanation I give there. When an atom emits light, what happens is that an orbiting electron falls closer to the nucleus, losing energy. The crucial discovery of quantum theory was that a falling electron is not like a falling planet; it does not descend continuously. Instead it is as if the electron moves instantaneously from one place to the other, and it is as if the electron knows in advance exactly where it is going to stop. It seemed to the physicists that some new notion of causality was needed, in which the future somehow dictates the present.
Jung's synchronicity is of this kind, and Jung explained it with a story of a kingfisher. He had a dream about the bird, then afterwards went for a walk and found a dead one beside a river, though few were seen there. To Jung it was as if the future discovery of the bird had caused the dream. If the future causes the present, then everything will begin to seem interconnected in uncanny ways - an idea that many novelists have played with, including myself. Paul Davies's cosmological speculations, which I already mentioned, are a manifestation of this abiding interest, and so too is my novel Mobius Dick, in which a series of events in the life of a physicist appear to be mysteriously connected.
Let me move now to another example of a great discovery made in physics by someone not usually thought of as a physicist. Immanuel Kant's Universal Theory was actually meant to be his first published book, but the publisher went bankrupt and the manuscript lay in Kant's desk for many years, made public only when Kant was old and famous. Like Poe, Kant began with a simple but profound observation of the night sky. The Milky Way forms a bright band across the sky. Kant knew this to be a swarm of stars, but why was it not spread evenly across the sky?
Kant surmised that we live in a disc-shaped galaxy of stars, and he correctly guessed that there are other galaxies like it, spread across the universe. He also noted that our solar system is disc shaped, because all the planets have orbits in the same plane. Isaac Newton took this as proof of an intelligent designer - he said that God could have set the planets moving any way he liked, but chose to make them orbit in the same plane as a demonstration of his existence. Kant believed in God too, but he thought there was a material explanation for this flat shape.
Everything must have begun with a cloud of dust and gas, slowly rotating. Centrifugal force would make the cloud stretch and flatten into a disc, and gravity would make the dust and gas coalesce into lumps which ultimately became the sun and planets. Modern astronomers accept this as the basic model of structure formation in our universe: solar systems and galaxies are made by gravity and rotation.
Kant went further, though. What he had found was a way in which complicated structures - stars and planets - could arise from simple, tiny units of matter moving randomly. This, Kant said, was the real evidence of God's existence. The universe begins as a primitive, disordered mass, and structure evolves from it, by purely mechanical laws, showing ever greater complexity. God chose laws that can make complexity happen.
Friedrich Engels rated Kant's theory one of the three greatest discoveries of modern science, the other two being Copernicus's heliocentric model and Darwin's theory of evolution. But as a strict materialist, Engels accepted all of Kant's reasoning except for the inclusion of God. The laws are purely natural, and complex structures arise naturally from them. Most scientists today would agree; the question of whether or not God exists is not a scientific question. If you believe it should be scientifically possible to prove the existence of God, you should also believe in the possibility of disproving it, and most people prefer to take the view that faith is not something that is a matter of evidence.
Still we are left wondering, though, why God or nature chose the particular laws it did. Why do we have four fundamental forces: gravity, electromagnetism and the so-called strong and weak nuclear forces? Why not three or five? And why do those forces have the strengths they do? Physicists would like to have a self-consistent explanation for them; a reason why the basic laws of nature are logically inevitable. But maybe they aren't - perhaps the laws we have are only one class of possibilities among an infinite number of alternatives. So some physicists think the there are really lots of universes - a multiverse embracing every possibility
This is reminiscent of the philosopher Leibniz, who lived before Kant, and famously proposed that we live in "the best of all possible worlds". This was the idea that Voltaire lampooned in Candide; more subtle versions of Leibniz's philosophy are found in Alexander Pope's long poem, An Essay On Man, or in Swift's Gulliver's Travels, where the people of Laputa construct a machine that can churn out every possible book. This same idea was re-used by Borges, just as it has been re-used by physicists.
Seth Lloyd, a pioneer in the field of quantum computing, has described how, at his graduation ceremony in Cambridge in the 1970s, he met Borges and explained to him the ideas of multiple realities in quantum theory, so similar to much of Borges's writing. Lloyd asked Borges if he was familiar with any of this work. Borges was not; but he said he was glad that science was at last catching up with the discoveries of artists.
The nineteenth century saw a split between science and art, but what we have seen since the twentieth century is a reconvergence. Literature offers a common ground for both kinds of thought, just as it did for Plato and Aristotle. Art and science are different but not incompatible, and it is only through mutual respect and understanding that there can be progress in either.