The Peril of the Sublime

The “sublime”, as defined by writers such as Burke, Kant, and Keats, is an experience of immensity and awe.  “THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”  We experience the sublime when we see vast mountains, violent storms, towering pyramids, dazzling details of pattern,the infinity of space.

The standard psychedelic or religious experiences are classic examples of the sublime.  The impression of infinite hugeness or infinite smallness, the impression of endless fractal intricacy, the impression of infinite recursion, the impression of vast significance  — these are intimations of infinity.

Indeed, it may be appropriate to simply define the sublime as the subjective experience of infinity.

But what, concretely, is the experience of infinity?

I suspect that it is merely the experience of being unable to measure or count. A person can innately see one or two objects and recognize them as one or two, without counting; if you show her more than seven or so, her first perception is of “many”.  The experience of uncountable multiplicity is the experience of losing count. “And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.”  Our metaphor for impossibly many is the innumerable stars. We measure the size of infinities by trying (and failing) to put them into one-to-one correspondence with each other.  Countlessness provokes awe.

So, too, does scalelessness: when we cannot estimate size, we become dizzy with vastness, with smallness, with the scale-free multiplicity of fractals. Timelessness provokes awe, with thoughts of “eternity in a grain of sand.”  When something breaks our units of measure, when it appears to go beyond them, we experience that as infinity.

If you think of perception as working through convolutional neural nets, you notice that higher level nodes are averages or invariants over measurements — the same object, independent of position or rotation or color shift.  Allow the neural net to run its outputs into its inputs long enough, and you begin to see the kinds of images that show up in DeepDream — highly multiscale, intricately patterned.  Some of these higher-level invariants are, clearly, being activated very intensely if the network is allowed to “ruminate” on its own contents.

I might speculate that ordinary perception puts something like frames or limits on this kind of recursive rumination.  As an artist drawing a picture first sketches the proportions of the main objects, before filling in details, to make sure nothing is out of balance, in ordinary perception we put objects or ideas in proportion or in context with the rest of our world. They have a finite size, a particular place in time, a finite importance, and so on.  If this ability to gauge proportion is baffled or broken, we get the impression of infinity and sublimity.

The sublime naturally inspires worship. When something appears to be infinitely important, infinitely vast or complex, eternal or beyond time, how can we not ascribe it with huge significance?  We can easily claim that some particular sacred cow is not, in fact, sacred; but to deny the importance of the sublime is tantamount to saying sacredness itself is not sacred.  From the perspective of someone who has experienced raw barefaced wonder, an enemy of the sublime is a desecrator, a dirty vandal, trying to reduce us all to his level of prosaic blindness.

I am not a vandal. But I am a scientist by training. And so, I find myself in a complicated relationship with the sublime.

The danger of worshiping the sublime is that it can all too easily reduce to worshiping one’s own incapacity.  The sublime’s favorite phrase is “I can’t even.”  It is the inability to put things into context and perspective.  To be overwhelmed by a wildflower is a kind of elevated sensitivity and acuteness of observation; but if you can be overwhelmed by anything, then you have a failure to prioritize.  If you perceive “infinity” as simply beyond what you can measure or comprehend, then seeking a sense of infinity is seeking your own ignorance.  You find yourself looking backwards and inwards, towards childhood, towards faith, towards “unmediated” perception, trying to peel back the layers of ordinary reason towards something “beyond” the workaday world.

I suspect that this kind of a backwards mental move is a fundamental kind of error. I’ve done it myself, enough times to recognize the pattern. You remember experiencing something as awe-inspiring and mysterious; you want to recreate that experience; you try to come up with a rational structure that preserves that intuition of mystery, that delicious sublimity; and look! you find you have come to a dead end, and the facts force you to acknowledge failure.

The first and most canonical example of this pattern is trying to prove the existence of God.  I recognize a similar kind of flavor in trying to defend superrationality, trying to refuse the No-Free-Lunch theorem, and trying to argue against digital physics.  There’s a deep appeal in ideas that seem to cut through our finite, parochial, incremental limitations to something “beyond,” but I’ve frequently found those intuitions impossible to justify.

Beyondness is sublime; locality is mundane.  But “beyond” is not a place you can get to.  We always represent infinity in terms of the failure of the finite. “For every N, there exists an n such that a_n > N.”  In other words: every bound will break. This is a temptation towards falling in love with brokenness.

The danger is that in reaching for infinity, reaching for the sublime, you wind up committing a kind of self-harm. Stunting your actual, real-world powers; admitting frank impossibilities into your belief system; seeking not the universe’s bigness but your own smallness.

The universe really is vast and awe-inspiring — it is not an accident that Carl Sagan, our contemporary poet of transcendence, was an astronomer — but to experience awe at the genuinely vast, you have to actually be moving outward along with the scientists, claiming old territory as comprehensible and well-mapped even as you look toward uncharted skies.  There’s a robust, outward-facing experience of the sublime that is dual to the “stolid, prosaic” approach that treats the world as finite and moderate in importance; if you can be cool-headed and proportionate and realistic, you can take on grand adventures and explorations.


6 thoughts on “The Peril of the Sublime

    • Ohhh that’s a long essay in its own right, but basically superrationality is one of those things that is “unreachable from here”, something that can’t be unilaterally decided by one person (assuming you don’t have access to other people’s source code.)

      • I would like to hear more about this notion! Because you know in math often “let’s just declare that we’re jumping to the end” often works quite well. So I would like to hear about what makes this different.

  1. Beautiful essay that resonated with me in every way. I find myself wrestling with the sublime after young adulthood as an anti-romantic, getting the feeling that we try to reach for something like the sublime in the modern world (an obsession with objects with history and authenticity) because almost everything we interact with is utilitarian/temporary/mundane/disposable and something within us is disgusted by that. Something sublime is something that compels us to respect it in its own right, not just as something we can use for practical or psychological purposes… forgive my incoherent ramblings and please keep writing.

  2. I agree with your conceptualization of the sublime as that which can’t be understood, and I agree that there’s a danger of us destroying our own understanding in order to make ourselves feel those feelings. That said, I don’t think that an appreciation of the sublime is incompatible with truthseeking, because we’re very unlikely to exhaust everything that can be known: it’s easier to simply make ourselves easily impressed with drugs or pathological world models than it is to continuously seek out unfamiliar ideas, but if we eliminate the easy outs we are left with a very strong curiosity drive in the form of an emotional and mystical appreciation for the unknown, and it’s a drive with a very short shelf-life to keep us seeking novelty.

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