Consciousness and the Constellations: Cognitive Scientist Alexandra Horowitz Reads and Reflects on Robert Frost

“You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much to happen…”

Consciousness and the Constellations: Cognitive Scientist Alexandra Horowitz Reads and Reflects on Robert Frost

English’s first use of the word Space to connote the cosmic expanse appears in line 650 of Book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Space can create new Worlds.

On this world, space has produced “atoms with consciousness,” in the lovely phrase of the later poet Richard Feynman. Minds. There are many minds in the world.

Milton also wrote the epic of philosophy and blank verse in seventeen-century America, where he formulated what constituted human experience.

Mind is in its own space, just as it is within itself.
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.

One of William Blake’s rare illustrations for Paradise Lost

In all of this, a paradox: A mind as complex and highly organized ours can perceive the fact of other minds, even more different from our own than the bodies they govern — an awareness haunted by Iris Murdoch’s reminder that the tragic freedom of our experience is the recognition that “others are, to an extent we never cease discovering, different from ourselves.” And yet the human mind is governed by a single organizing principle — self-reference, known often by its other names: memory, language, love.

It can only see its place because it has its own perspective. Our whole view of the world and recognition of others is shaped by our particular mentality, which is influenced by the particular experiences of life. Everything we see — ourselves, each other, the universe itself — is focused into meaning by that lens.

Plate taken from an original theory or new hypothesis of the universe by Thomas Wright (1750). This print is also available as stationery cards.

Milton lived through a turning point in human thought — an era that cleared the inner lens into a discomposing glimpse of reality as Galileo turned the lens of his primitive telescope outward to dismantle our illusions of centrality, our puerile cosmic self-reference. By the time Milton visited Galileo, he was too old and blind to look through the astronomer’s telescope and marvel at its concrete revelations of other moons spinning around other worlds spinning around a shared star. However, he was able to see the abstract truth that lies beyond: Every point of light in the universe is a point.

A period of lens-clearing following Milton. We discovered the universe is vastly larger than we believed and our world is full of other consciousnesses. Robert Frost (March 26, 1874–January 29, 1963) took up this subject with great subtlety and splendor in his poem “On Looking Up by Chance at the Constellations.”

At the fifth annual Universe in Verse — which explored through the dual lens of science and poetry the ultimate question animating these atoms with consciousness: What is life? — Frost’s poem came alive in a lovely reading by cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz — director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, writer of some uncommonly poetic books about how canine minds see the world, creator and host of the wonderful new podcast Off Leash. With a touching reflection on consciousness’ limits, she began her reading by stating that it was difficult to see the world through one point of view.

Robert Frost

You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much
It can happen beyond the clouds and floats of air
The Northern Lights are like nerves tingling.
Although the sun and moon cross each other, they don’t touch.
You will not set fire to each other or make a loud crash.
The planets seem to interfere in their curves —
There is no harm done, and nothing happens.
You can just continue to live your life patiently.
You should look beyond the stars, moon, and sun.
To keep our sanity, we must be prepared for shocks or changes.
True, the longest droughts will be ended in rain.
China’s longest period of peace will soon end in strife.
Still it wouldn’t reward the watcher to stay awake
To see the peace of heaven,
His particular time and his personal sight.
The calm is certain to continue for at least the next night.

Complement with Rebecca Solnit’s splendid reading of and reflection on the century-old poem “Trees at Night” from the same show, then revisit this rare recording of JFK’s tribute to Robert Frost — which is at heart a manifesto for the power of art to clarify, sanctify, and defend truth.

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