Education and Intuition

The 2014 PBS TV series, How We Got to Now is a good miniseries on improvements in glass-making, sewage, water management, etc. that serve as the material/organizational basis for this modern world.

At one point in the series, the host Steven Johnson, a kind of historian of innovation, reveals his idea of how innovation occurs and he focuses on mavericks whose breakthrough is not a sudden “Eureka!” moment, but rather what Johnson calls “a slow hunch.” In other words, the innovators struggle along with a partially understood sense of possibility, very inchoate in the beginning, that comes into better focus with the passage of years and decades, via missteps and boondoggles.

The science writer Arthur Koestler shines a different “flashlight” on this problem of intuitive creativity and its bearing fruit:

Arthur Koestler, CBE (UK: 5 September 1905 – 1 March 1983) was a Hungarian British author and journalist. Koestler was born in Budapest. His masterful book, The Sleepwalkers, is a kind of defense of the way people in the past benefited from a productive sleepwalking on their journeys to scientific advance.

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe is a 1959 book by Arthur Koestler. It traces the history of Western cosmology from ancient Mesopotamia to Isaac Newton. He suggests that discoveries in science arise through a process akin to sleepwalking. Not that they arise by chance, but rather that scientists are neither fully aware of what guides their research, nor are they fully aware of the implications of what they discover.

A central theme of the book is the changing relationship between faith and reason. Koestler explores how these seemingly contradictory threads existed harmoniously in many of the greatest intellectuals of the West. He illustrates that while the two are estranged today, in the past the most ground-breaking thinkers were often very spiritual.

Another recurrent theme of this book is the breaking of paradigms in order to create new ones. People—scientists included—hold on to cherished old beliefs with such love and attachment that they refuse to see the wrong in their ideas and the truth in the ideas that are to replace them.

The conclusion he puts forward at the end of the book is that modern science is trying too hard to be rational. Scientists have been at their best when they allowed themselves to behave as “sleepwalkers,” instead of trying too earnestly to ratiocinate.

Add to this overview the “creativity” discussion on The Charlie Rose Show in The Brain Series (2010), where Professor Eric Kandel, the Nobel-prize physiologist, states forthrightly that brain research has no idea about creativity and the prospect of explaining creativity in terms of the brain is very distant indeed.

The arrival of a “slow hunch” (Steven Johnson) and “productive sleepwalking,” as opposed to unproductive kinds of woolgathering (Arthur Koestler), are mind, personality and spirit issues, although they do have brain-chemical “correlations” that cannot be explained mechanistically.

Mysteries all have physical/chemical “correlations” but cannot be simplistically reduced to biochem or genomics.

Education and Ambiguity Awareness: A Polyvalent World

Sleepwalkers and sleepwalking are both destructive and constructive and show us the ambiguity in all phenomena.

The World War I chronicle of Professor Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers, from 2012, is described this way:

On the morning of June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, arrived at Sarajevo railway station, Europe was at peace. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. The conflict that resulted would kill more than fifteen million people, destroy three empires, and permanently alter world history.

The Sleepwalkers reveals in gripping detail how the crisis leading to World War I unfolded. Drawing on fresh sources, it traces the paths to war in a minute-by-minute, action-packed narrative that cuts among the key decision centers in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London, and Belgrade.

Distinguished historian Christopher Clark examines the decades of history that informed the events of 1914 and details the mutual misunderstandings and unintended signals that drove the crisis forward in a few short weeks.

How did the Balkans—a peripheral region far from Europe’s centers of power and wealth—come to be the center of a drama of such magnitude? How had European nations organized themselves into opposing alliances, and how did these nations manage to carry out foreign policy as a result? Clark reveals a Europe racked by chronic problems—a fractured world of instability and militancy that was, fatefully, saddled with a conspicuously ineffectual set of political leaders. These rulers, who prided themselves on their modernity and rationalism, stumbled through crisis after crisis and finally convinced themselves that war was the only answer.

On the other hand, the great science writer and intellectual Arthur Koestler (died in 1983) in his own book, The Sleepwalkers, (originally, 1959) argues that the revolution in cosmology associated with the names of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, et al depended on visionary thinking, a kind of “sleepwalking.”

Lastly, the classic novel, The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch (died in 1851) condemns sleepwalking as the basis of Europe and Germany’s descent into nightmare.

Important works by Broch are The Sleepwalkers (German: “Die Schlafwandler,” 1932) and The Guiltless (German: “Die Schuldlosen,” 1950). The Sleepwalkers is a trilogy, where Broch takes “the degeneration of values” as his theme. Various generations are depicted as sleepwalking through their times and eras without any ability to “see past” their time, place, era. They were “sleepwalking.” This made them liable to demagogic deceptions and recruitment.

On the other hand, the experience and story of Kekulé (died 1896) and his scientific discoveries prodded by dreams and reveries and sleepwalking give us a story that argues against seeing sleepwalking as always negative:
Kekulé’s dream and “good kinds of sleepwalking.”

Friedrich August Kekulé, later Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz (7 September 1829 – 13 July 1896), was a German organic chemist. From the 1850s until his death, Kekulé was one of the most prominent chemists in Europe, especially in theoretical chemistry. He was the principal founder of the theory of chemical structure.

The new understanding of benzene (C6H6), and hence of all aromatic compounds, proved to be so important for both pure and applied chemistry after 1865 that in 1890 the German Chemical Society organized an elaborate appreciation in Kekulé’s honor, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first benzene paper.

Here Kekulé spoke of the creation of the theory.

He said that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail (this is an ancient symbol known as the ouroboros).

Kekulé’s story of “dreaming up” the structure of benzene (C6H6) gives us another historical example of Arthur Koestler-type “good sleepwalking” ie visionary dreams and reveries that really enhance “objective” concrete scientific analysis and not only art works.

It is educational to see the inner ambiguity of words and phenomena (such as sleepwalking) because this duality and “polyvalence” applies to many cases.