Comments on Divine Fury: A History of Genius

In “Wonder Boys?”,  a review of Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon in the October 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books, Tamsin Shaw explores the nature of human consciousness, the notion of “genius,” and its relationship with the cosmos, or God.

Early on Shaw introduces the issue by considering the proposition that the universe is indifferent to the fate of humanity by quoting a parable posed by Friedrich Nietzsche:

In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in the innumerable solar systems, there was once a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.

Shaw responds, “This picture of cosmic insignificance is what the idea of genius has repeatedly challenged.” He says:

The genius, on this understanding, answers the human demand for what Thomas Nagel has called the “yearning for cosmic reconciliation,” that is, for a way of living in harmony (being connected “intelligibly and, if possible, satisfyingly”) with the whole of reality…. The genius has provided us [a way] that permits us to see ourselves, in however attenuated a sense, as the point of it all….

According to Shaw, the transcendental idealist tradition in philosophy, founded by Immanuel Kant, “gave rise to a notion of genius that unified the human mind and nature in a distinctive way.”

Kant had argued that Newtonian physics could not explain how complex, self-organizing life forms such as plants and animals could come into existence. Human artifacts with complex mechanisms have an external cause, but plants and animals appear to be self-organizing and self-maintaining. Kant suggested that the best way to describe them was as if they were behaving with an inner purposiveness (emphasis added)….

Kant saw the same kind of process in the work of the artist. Beauty in a work of art consisted for him in the ability to stimulate a pleasurable interaction between our understanding and our imagination, a state of free play that could not be captured by any determinate concept…. Artistic genius connected us in a deep way with nature.

The early Romantics seized on the idea of an organism as a means of describing nature not as a machine but as a living force,… The mental and the physical were understood as manifestations of the same underlying force generating the infinitely complex, self-organizing structure that was the cosmos. Human creativity was continuous with this self-organization but it had a special status as the point at which the whole process achieved self-consciousness.

The Kantian concern with the beautiful was eclipsed by his notion of the sublime. …[T]he mind can grasp infinities that our senses cannot show us. Beethoven was the artist who, above all others, conjured this feeling of confronting titanic forces and yet soaring above them, exalted.

Shaw then considers controversies in physics and mathematics concerning whether “the relationship between the mental and the physical could be modeled as a mind comprehending an objectively existing external reality,” or whether “any explanation of the natural order must ultimately have a physical basis.” Shaw holds out hope that the universe is not indifferent to humanity and that human consciousness is not determined by physical causes.

But unless physicalist naturalism succeeds in explaining how the cosmos can contain conscious creatures for whom the universe is intelligible, there will be those who hold out hope of an alternative. Thomas Nagel, one of the few philosophers today holding onto such hope, implies that we in fact have an ethical obligation to understand our deep relation to the cosmos, because “in each of us, the universe has come to consciousness.” As Schlegel said, we are nature looking back at itself. But many more geniuses would be required for us to uncover what this really means.

To my mind, this perspective implies that God is personal, because the Mystery that structures and energizes life has fostered human consciousness.

Shaw argues that an underlying unity is reflected in the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, in whom “we have found an artistic genius to make that abstract order resound with human emotion.”

The formal qualities of these works, the internal logic of counterpoint and harmony, are dazzling. But at the same time they somehow express authentic human emotions. Objective abstract order and subjective human experience are mysteriously in harmony….

He says, “Bach, it seems, has kept alive for a few the faith that genius might vindicate the human mind from the perspective of the universe,” which, according to many, is indifferent to humanity.

Shaw concludes:

We are relentlessly destroying the only known life-supporting planet in our solar system. The human mind may yet render itself absurd without any help from the cosmos…. Our “baby Einsteins,” every one of their emerging minds a miracle, justify to their parents all of conscious human existence. We must hope they can find new “possibilities of being” for themselves.

Once I asked Ajahn Amaro, the Buddhist monk, what he would like to learn. He replied, “How human consciousness emerged.” The same mystery applies to the emergence of life itself. Scientists still have not develop a definitive answer to either question.

Until they do, if they do, we can only relish the Mystery. We may not be “the point of it all,” as Shaw put it. Just how “special” our status may be is unknown. All we know for certain is that we are wonderful creatures and life is beautiful.

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