The Nobility and Inanity of Work

I’ve recently been formulating a renewed underpinning of my work as a scientist: namely love. When I was in college I had rooted it in truth and the early Christian notion that Christ is the truth; and so somehow, mysteriously the work of uncovering scientific truth, was, for me, about coming closer to Christ.

But in my late college years, and after, my epistemological confidence was eroded; I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe some classes by Fred Aquino or Paul Morris, maybe reading Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, maybe just losing my first faith. In any case my impression of my nearness to truth shifted by a few miles. And especially in the realm of scientific knowledge, that distance has remained for me. It’s not that science is so often wrong, but that it is so limited. The assumptions under a particular scientific theory are always hidden from view until many decades or centuries later when, say, observations become precise enough the theory itself starts to break down. Take as an example the assumption that the earth was at the center of the universe, or that light must have been mediated by some substance call it ether, or that space was euclidean, or that the universe was stationary. I think these broken assumptions from the history of science severely dampened my drive to do it. My doubt killed my scientific motive.

Now a deeply-rooted motive is not necessary for me to keep moving in some particular choice of work. Thus I returned to study physics at the age of 25 simply because I knew I liked teaching science, and I liked the academic environment. Nevertheless, my mind is always searching for a deeply-rooted motive. And slowly it has begun to settle on a theological notion with kinship to truth, love. They are kin, but they are not on the same plane. Love lies down, down, down at the very bottom of everything. Love, I am coming to believe, is the fundamental principle of reality. What does this mean, fundamental principle? Oh, well, that I don’t know. I don’t know what these words mean exactly. Something like the defining characteristic of God, or the thing that makes all things go, or the reason the world is, or some such thing.

And love, I think, begins with the meeting of two persons. Not one person and one object, but two living, choosing, free personalities. Man and woman, friend and friend, man and God, God and creation, mother and child, man and beast, and then the ones that are a little off my map, man and wilderness, man and tree, man and river, tree and river. I certainly don’t know, but I like to speculate in a medieval sort of way that all creation is permeated with personality.

So love, I think, begins with the meeting of two persons. And then it is sealed in a covenant between them, some sort of promise to bend oneself toward the other’s good, no matter what the other does or does not do.

And then love, I think, is tested and deepened with knowledge, knowledge of the other. And this knowledge, of that other creature over there, is a limited sort of knowledge since it is knowledge of a wild and free person, not of static object. And it is a subjective sort of knowledge since it is housed in the hazy mind of another wild and free person. But it is also an essentially objective knowledge, because there really is a creature there. There’s a real being and a truth about who that being is. The good and the bad.

And finally love, I think, is actually exercised by releasing control, by giving up ones power over the other. The actual act of love toward which everything else is building, is a divine act of letting be. It’s the act of God toward the early Jewish nation as they took up worship of multiple gods, or set up a king over themselves, or massacred and subjected other tribes and called it holy. It’s the act of Christ toward the world as he took off the mantle of godhood and bound himself inside a body in Palestine at a particular instant in history. It’s the act of a father who sees his son make dangerous or erratic choices and lets him do it, lets the young man be. It’s the act of a mother who receives dart after dart of a son’s anger or shame and takes them into her flesh without flinging them back. It’s the act of a lover who sees her beloved’s sin and ugliness and still comes to him. It’s the act of a self-loather who looks boldly at the mistakes and wastes of his soul and says, ‘come home; you are my own self; I will learn to love you.’ It’s the act of the sustainer of the world letting each creature in each new generation choose and explore.

All of these acts of love require knowledge and right judgment, which is terrifying when its me being known, me being judged. As those who love me begin to know me more wholly more and more unpleasant odors leake out around my edges. More and more resons to reject me show up. But the true lover’s response to knowledge of the beloved is: ‘Nevertheless I will always love you.’

And that can be a motive for scientific work, knowledge of God’s good earth, so that I may love it, and set up a little man cave in it, and revel in it, and let it be. And not just me but everyone whose knowledge of the universe is helped along a little, nudged toward the truth by my work.

Okay, so now the inane part. That’s heavy. And truthfully I carry it around in my mind only on the rare morning that I’m thinking very hard about why in hell I’m doing what I’m doing. So what’s the motive for my work when I’m not thinking so hard? Many things, some good some bad: money, food, pants, acclaim, responsibility, to be near certain people, or just to make it through another day. One motive that startled and pleased me last week was the inane pleasure of solving puzzles.

About ten of us were sitting in Sukanta Bose’s general relativity lecture. He was laying the mathematical groundwork for the theory and had decided to explain some difficult tensor manipulations through examples. The examples ended up rather more difficult than he had thought. He got stumped on a few. And when this very smart lecturer got stumped every single sleepy-eyed physics nerd in the class simultaneously took a shot of cocaine and started mapping out his or her solution on whatever was at hand. We were all trying to be the first to get there. I saw a friend chewing his pencil furiously. It was a wonder to step back and watch my own pleasure in the puzzle, and that of my colleagues and of Dr. Bose. It was what drove us in that moment. Our motive to do physics, to learn this difficult mathematics, wasn’t some sweeping philosophy but a silly little pleasure in puzzles. We solved the problems and Bose moved on. But I paused and jotted down on the back of one of my pages: “The nobility vs. the inanity of work: physicists playing with problems.” Then I added: “what does inanity mean? google it.”

Later I thought maybe this is common to us all. Is it? Does the careful lawyer working for the purpose of justice also get a kick out of the minutiae of judicial history and the precision of language? Does the artist working in the service of love or courage or truth also delight in a particular combination of colors or in the way her pencil feels just so? Does the counselor working to secure shattered lives, working in the service of love, does she also forget her emotional fatigue because of the complexity and interest of a human story? Does the mother who works to bring vulnerable children to strength and peace, who gives of herself for the future of the world, also take a silly pleasure in her child’s whimsies or in the new discipline structure she has invented? Does the farmer who works for my daily bread and husbands the good land wake up excited for work some days simply because he knows and loves the intricacies of his tractor?

If so, isn’t it a wonderful gift that these inane pleasures drive us to work, to make things, to survive together? Thinkers and philosophers may formulate meaningful narratives which uncover work’s purposes, and I may reflect on these purposes at the start of my day, and I may thank God and be the larger for it. But then the bell chimes and I lean into my work and I am small again, a little creature in a big world, solving a set of happy little puzzles, chewing my pencil.

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About mbdeaton

I study neutrino oscillations in neutron star mergers as a postdoc at North Carolina State University. Previously I was a graduate student at Washington State University, using the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity. I like the following questions: What happens when black holes and neutron stars collide? What is the role of radiation (neutrinos!) in an event like that? What makes Fred and Doerte such fine teachers? What's physics for? What good can a scientist offer his local community, as a scientist?

2 thoughts on “The Nobility and Inanity of Work

  1. Brett, this made me cry.

    Thanks for your words. “So love, I think, begins with the meeting of two persons. And then it is sealed in a covenant between them, some sort of promise to bend oneself toward the other’s good, no matter what the other does or does not do.”

    “I am small again, a little creature in a big world, solving a set of happy little puzzles, chewing my pencil.”

    Brilliant.

  2. Brett, I loved this as well. It was so beautifully written. I especially loved your closing thoughts, particularly this: “Does the mother who works to bring vulnerable children to strength and peace, who gives of herself for the future of the world, also take a silly pleasure in her child’s whimsies or in the new discipline structure she has invented?”

    As a pretty new mama, that sentence both humbled and encouraged me. It forced me to be more introspective than I have in awhile and I realized that, yes, yes I do delight in Jonah’s silliness. I do find pleasure in small victories like making a healthy dinner that both my boys love or successfully folding and putting away all the laundry. You redirected my gaze to these sweet blessings and I’m so grateful!

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