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I just finished Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate. Good stuff, but the part that is sticking for me today is the poem by Emily Dickinson that he quotes in the final chapter.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
I’ve drifted away from Emily Dickinson over the years. This is a poem that I don’t think I ever encountered in my Dickenson-philia phase. If I did, it made no impression. But this time I find it inspiring. It puts me in mind of David Deutsch’s view of the brain as a universal explainer, capable of modeling anything – for instance the inside of a quasar jet.
” . . . one physical system – say, an astrophysicist’s brain – contains an accurate working model of the other, the jet. Not just a superficial image (though it contains that, as well), but an explanatory theory that embodies the same mathematical relationships and causal structure. That is scientific knowledge. Furthermore, the faithfulness with which the one structure resembles the other is steadily increasing. That constitutes the creation of knowledge . . . Of all the physical processes that can occur in nature, only the creation of knowledge exhibits that underlying unity.”
In other words, the brain is wider than the sky, because it can model the sky, and still have room left over. That’s a remarkable fact about brains.
Of course the most important and difficult part of the poem is the final stanza. If you don’t read it carefully, it may sound like traditional religious sentiment. The brain is bigger than this, the brain is bigger than that, but the brain isn’t bigger than God. But Dickinson is tricky. Her religion is never traditional, her view of God anything but sentimental.
“they will differ—if they do—”
Here Dickinson throws doubt on the difference. Did God create man or did man create God? If the brain and God don’t differ, then is God just another model in our expansive brains? But the final metaphor is the crucial one.
“As Syllable from Sound—”
Whatever could that mean?
I think it is a sentiment familiar to Deutsch, familiar to John Gardner in Grendel when he calls humans “pattern-makers,” familiar to Shakespeare when he has Hamlet say of man, “In apprehension, how like a god!”
We are the Children of Tama. We create meaning. We carve “syllable” (sense, explanation, metaphor) from “sound” (nature, experience, event). We do that. If we are different from God (and Dickinson, as we’ve seen, isn’t so sure there’s a distinction to be made) then that difference is found here: we – these embodied brains trapped forever in these limited bodies, yet entirely because of our brains capable of traveling to the bottom of the sea, to the edge of the sky – we transform information into knowledge.
I need to read more Emily Dickinson.