Kant and the Strangeness of Everything: A Review of Two Books

One of the really great things about education, and I certainly don’t mean just formal education, is that one begins to see threads of connection between various fields of study and ideas. If this state of learnedness is combined with a little curiosity, you may be blessed with a question no one else has ever asked before. If you have the resources to propose an answer for that question, and it’s a substantial question, you may even make an original contribution to knowledge. And then you’ll finally be granted tenure and you can stop working so hard!

Of course, most of us are not getting paid to figure out life and the meaning of everything, but I earnestly hope that doesn’t discourage you from exploring without bounds the questions that interest you, no matter how daunting they may seem at the outset. There are, too, those rare birds who choose a quotidian vocation and do their science and philosophy on the side, and if Spinoza is any indication, that shouldn’t make you any less effective at either pursuit.

As an aside, I’d love to here from any of you that have a story of discovering bits of various topics you’ve spent time with popping up in seemingly unlikely places and thus connecting disparate lines of thinking. I actually read a book devoted to this idea about fifteen years ago but I might not remember the title even if I saw it now and definitely can’t think of it off the top of my head. Thanks in advance if anyone can come up with that.

So, anyways, after that admittedly verbose preamble, the stuff that really fascinates me are the biggest imaginable questions: What is reality? Where did everything come from? Can we ever know anything? Can we ever even know if we can know? I frequently find inspiration in science fiction, and that’s what led me to my latest adventure in intellectual serendipity and to this question: Can Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics explain why so much of what we see at the extremes of physics and psychology is so strange?

I went on an Interstellar binge a couple of months ago. I ended up buying the movie on Google Play and watching it over and over. Doing so made me want to better understand the science of general relativity. That’s how I happened upon the first book I’m writing about in this essay, Exploring Black Holes: Introduction to General Relativity. Now, if this sounds like a college-level textbook on general relativity, that’s because it is. But don’t let that put you off. It’s actually a rather slim volume – under 200 pages – and it’s large format with lot’s of illustrations and written in plain language. I’ve read lots and lots of popular science books on relativity, cosmology, and quantum physics, but I realize now just how dumbed down most of that stuff is. And here’s what makes me say that – I never really understood general relativity until I went through this book.

In defence of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his ilk, I have to say it is, in fact, really hard to put this stuff into words for a lay audience, and for that matter, into words period. We say things like “the curvature of spacetime” but space isn’t really curving around large celestial bodies. It just is different. Existence in that plane is different. Gravity is not pulling things close and changing those things in the process. It’s more like things are sliding into an area where the world is different in a way that things are not like they are for us here on Earth at this moment, e.g., time passes more slowly. Now see, that’s what I mean! Time isn’t actually passing more slowly in these places. It looks like that to you from here right now, but really, it just is different. Time is flowing differently, but it’s not changing anything when you go there. “There” just is different. So, yeah, like I said, it’s hard to explain, let alone to do so in plain language. If you want to try and get closer to understanding what’s really going on with general relativity, though, I think taking a shot at Exploring Black Holes might work well for you. You might be surprised just how much your thinking will change from that which you’ve developed through popular sources.

Coming in Part 2: Understanding Kant’s big idea, a good book for doing so, and the crazy questions that popped into my head after putting Kant and relativity together. I’ll be explaining my general methodology for tackling difficult topics as well.

One comment

  1. A little over a year ago, within about six months of the two events, I had opportunities to chat one-to-one with Lawrence Krauss and Jerry Coyne. I strolled from a hotel to a lecture hall with the one and sat around a worn-at-the edges office with the other. These were informal chats as I fulfilled my role of congenial host and event organizer. They were each gentle and brilliant men to hang out with. And they both provided me enormous windows on my previous thoughts about things like “free will” and “how the universe works”. I read my share of books like the one you suggest (which has been added to my to-do list) but I can’t recommend strongly enough taking any opportunity available to chat leisurely with experts to find those threads and connections….

    Liked by 1 person

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