Contemplation

To arrive at the simplest truth, as Newton knew and practiced, requires years of contemplation. Not activity. Not reasoning. Not calculating. Not busy behaviour of any kind. Not reading. Not talking. Not making an effort. Not thinking. Simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know. And yet those with the courage to tread this path to real discovery are not only offered practically no guidance on how to do so, they are actively discouraged and have to set about it in secret, pretending meanwhile to be diligently engaged in the frantic diversions and to conform with the deadening personal opinions which are being continually thrust upon them.

This is from Laws of Form. I was reminded of this quote by Mike Travers, who recently quoted the part that precedes the part I quoted:

We find systems of education today which have departed so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt.

Spencer-Brown here is saying that knowledge should be relatively lower status, while ignorance should be relatively celebrated. But he is not advocating against a search for truth. To the contrary, he suggests that the contemplation of truth should be something that ought to be so driving as to cause one to deceive and ignore others.

I can empathize with Spencer-Brown’s thesis. When I understand something, it’s dead to me. It’s boring. And there are perhaps three “big problems” (which might turn out to all be the same project) I’ve held in my mind for decades, always chewing and sometimes chipping off bits of bone, but not yet getting to the marrow that I know must be there. Nobody knows what my real project is, because I don’t talk about the object of my contemplation. Conversation and collaboration are useful, but only at the periphery, where problems are still real and relevant, but indirect.

Of the thinkers I admire the most, I am convinced that many also have a “real project” that they are gnawing on, and I sometimes imagine that I have caught a glimpse of what their real project is.

But one doesn’t talk about these things, and Spencer-Brown’s advice is terrible advice for the majority of the population. For more than 99% of humanity, it is proper to esteem knowledge and discourage the vain contemplation of “truth“. Given the constraints that Spencer-Brown puts around contemplation, the risk of encouraging crackpots is high, and we don’t need to that, do we?

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