Monday, February 07, 2005


One of the most important principles that we have learnt in our quest for truth in the last five thousand years (roughly from the beginning of 'modern' civilization), is that the sum of parts does not necessarily explain the whole. In fact, far from it, sometimes it makes the mystery even more exciting and rich. This is one of the most enduring paradigms that we, explorers into the unknown, have to unravel.

For example, cell biologists and chemists can conjure up of a model of a cell based on their understanding of every individual part and organelle, and yet all attempts to create 'artificial cells' have been to no avail (at least in a comprehensive way). Sociologists try to understand the complex interaction between human beings. They are far from even understanding the parts; yet whatever understanding they have creates more complications than it resolves, towards the understanding of the whole. Marriage counsellors pinpoint exact problems with husband-wife relationships. They gather exhaustive data by interviewing thousands of couples, perform intricate surveys, and write best selling coffee table books to please the general public and give them high hopes. Yet, and this may be one of the greatest puzzles of them all, no one understands definitively, the key to a happy relationship! Astronomers gather data and analyze lucrative pieces of the puzzle of the Universe, and it only deepens their awe of the mystery. Evolutionary biologists, in an attempt to trace the roots of perhaps the greatest puzzle of all, search for phylogenetic relationships between organisms, and look for evidence that will link the facts to explain the grand scheme of evolution. And yet, no one can actually explain how evolution took place.

In my recent beginner's study of the fascinating world of fragrances and perfumes and smell, I learn the same thing. Open a bottle of a famous perfume-Chanel no. 5 for example- and give it to a perfumer. By smelling that creative blend of ingredients, the perfumer can analyze the mix exactly the way a trained listener may analyze a symphony. There are top notes, bottom notes, and middle notes, notes which are ephemeral and vanish after a caress to your senses, and warm, heavy notes that linger in unspoken pleasant memory. Every perfume is an exquisite act of creativity, fuelling the complex unconscious desires and hopes of human beings. Yet no perfumer can convincingly proclaim a formula for a new blockbuster perfume. At the heart of the enigma is how we smell, the 'last mystery of the senses'. No one knows how that happens. Again, what we are learning is the sum of the parts is not adding up to the whole. More on this later.

What is that piece of puzzle that we are missing? Why, after centuries of investigation, do we not understand the workings of the unified whole? One very interesting metaphor, and this is something I just gained out of Stephen Jay Gould's superb book 'The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister's Pox', is to compare the whole maze of our understanding of the human and natural world, with the mystical and tortous maze of the Minotaur. Embodied in spirit as the brave Thesues, we are venturing into this convoluted but fascinating framework to understand what 'the truth' is, if there is any. At the beginning of the labyrinth is particle physics, the ultimate in abstraction, manifested in the building blocks of the Universe. As we wind our way in gradually, we come to more and more 'softer' disciplines; chemistry, biology, and finally, the humanities, social sciences and ethics. At the center is the veritable Minotaur, the apex of understanding and meaning, which we must conquer. However, the problem in all of this is that, because our structure of exploration is a labyrinth, it is a ramified journey that we must undertake. At the beginning, we stand on firm ground in physics, guided by the ultralogical principles of mathematics. But as we make our way in, at every point, there are ramifications, which simply grow in number as we progress to the 'softer' sciences. Which way must we choose at every point? Robert Frost's immortal 'The Road Less Travelled' may guide us in the process, but only, as Robert Oppenheimer once said, at the cost of losing meaning and knowledge, which we would have gained had we treaded the other path.

Our journey in the last five thousand years can be quite neatly described, I think, using this wonderful metaphor of Stephen Jay Gould. Many times, when we have hypothesized an incorrect theory, gone to war with the wrong hopes and understanding, or gotten stuck in the quagmire of professed new social understanding, we have probably gone the wrong way. We became quite lost on this path, and it would have been quite hopeless, had it not been for Ariadne's magical golden thread which guided us back to the beginning, wiser now with the experiences that our wrongdoings and mistakes brought to us. What is this thread? I would like to think that it mainly represents two unwavering guiding principles- unification and conscience. With unification in mind, we never lost sight of the big picture, never lost the realisation we are merely explorers in an unending and fascinating scheme that nature has set forth before us. The realisation of unification also brought the advent of conscience, that abstract but all too real uniquely human value, which binds us to our fellow human beings, and also fosters a deep relationship with nature. It was these two values, that made us find our way back with conviction, so that once again we could make our soul indomitable and begin on a new 'road less travelled'.

So then, what about that missing ingredient that makes everything work? When would we find that? Does it really matter? Whether it is Stephen Jay Gould, The Bhagavad Gita, or the beautiful poem 'Ithaca' by C. P. Caravy, we are again led to the same message. Tread on the path my friend. With the fascination of the means, you would cease thinking about the end. In our quest, we assume the guise of the immortal Ulysses who braved all, kept the end in sight, but never let it overwhelm the means, even when all hopes seemed to be lost. An enduring favourite sounds apt here:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T.S. Eliot -- "Little Gidding" (the last of his Four Quartets)


Blogger Sumedha said...

I would say that's Gandhian philosophy :-)

8:41 AM  

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