Precision and Soul

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute.

We do not have too much intellect
and too little soul, but too little
precision in matters of the soul.

Robert Musil

The near-infinite question of how best to describe the world has yielded a relatively predictable taxonomy of answers. At least this is true if we judge this question in terms of the species of avocation/profession, categories of object or artifact, and scholarly departments.

We are told that there are (and worse still that we are) scientists, artists, humanists, or electrical engineers, plumbers, and gardeners. The list is long and also disappointing. So much seems to be lost, or perhaps contracted, by the labels.

An alternative and, I think, more liberating approach is to look at the organic shaping of ideas over the course of careers, and thereby trace biographical territories that are explored and the many borders that are crossed in the making of minds. When Robert Musil wrote of precision in his essay, “Helpless Europe,” in 1922, he was expressing an opinion that found its most complete expression in his encyclopedic novel, The Man Without Qualities:

“If there is a sense of reality, there must also be a sense of possibility. To pass freely through open doors, it is necessary to respect the fact that they have solid frames. This principle, by which the old professor had lived, is simply a requisite of the sense of reality. But if there is a sense of reality, and no one will doubt that it has its justifications for existing, then there must also be something we can call a sense of possibility. Whoever has it does not say, for instance: Here this or that has happened, will happen, must happen; but he invents: Here this or that might, could, or ought to happen. If he is told that something is the way it is, he will think: Well, it could probably just as well be otherwise. So the sense of possibility could be defined outright as the ability to conceive of everything there might be just as well, and to attach no more importance to what is than to what is not.”

In a profound sense, it is the business of science to express as rigorously as it can a sense of possibility. Quantum mechanics has a very nice phrase, “counterfactual definiteness.” It describes the perfectly reasonable meaning that can be attached to measurements that have not yet been performed. Einstein made a career out of proliferating thought experiments in a physical universe with very “solid frames” in order to reveal through a sense of possibility that it also has more doors than a Royal Palace.

In the spirit of expanding our sense of possibility, SFI and the SFI Press are starting a new magazine of interviews, featuring our Miller Scholars (artists, historians, and humanists) and Fractal Faculty (distinguished sabbatical researchers) in collaboration with our partners at Santa Fe Magazine. It will be called ExtraTerritorial. We are borrowing the title from George Steiner’s book of the same name in which he describes the paths of linguistic nomads defying the borders of cultural identity. Through interviews that connect the zigzag of a life to the accretion of ideas we hope to lend some precision to matters of the soul.

— David Krakauer
President, Santa Fe Institute

From the Summer 2022 edition of the SFI Parallax newsletter. Subscribe here for the monthly email version, or email “news at santafe.edu” to request quarterly home delivery in print.

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The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.

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Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.