The latecomer to a Magonian meeting always runs the risk of finding that they’ve been ‘volunteered’ to review a book that, because the subject matter appears rather recherché, everyone else has passed on. Such is the case here. As someone who has read very little Edgar Allen Poe – a little that doesn’t include the book that’s the focus of this study - I approached this book with more than a few reservations.
To my relief, I found it not only a pleasure but revelatory. David N. Stamos uses Poe’s Eureka as a springboard to explore a subject with a far wider relevance, making it much more than a niche work for Poe aficionados.
As well as being a lover of Poe, Stamos teaches philosophy at Toronto’s York University and is the author of books on evolutionary biology in relation to such heady issues as race, religion and human rights. His subject, or rather starting point, here is his hero’s last and most perplexing work, Eureka, published in 1848, the year before his death. As it’s about science and the scientific mind Eureka has, as Stamos laments in his prologue, been largely ignored by, on the one hand, the literary world (as it’s not fiction) and, on the other, philosophers and historians of science (as Poe wasn’t one of their hallowed number). His intention in writing Eureka has long been the subject of debate among Poe enthusiasts; some even consider it one of the literary hoaxes that he took delight in perpetrating.
Stamos aims to show that Eureka should be taken seriously, and that in it Poe was saying something important and of continuing relevance. Not only had he developed a proper philosophy of science – something then unknown – but, Stamos contends, one that is superior to any of the various schools that have emerged since his day. And his application of that philosophy enabled him to anticipate nine – at least – major discoveries and theories of twentieth-century science.
So, Stamos simultaneously uses modern science to vindicate Eureka and Eureka to deepen our understanding of science. In doing so he takes in a vast array of subjects: philosophy, theology, neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary studies and much more, all described with a clarity that makes me envious of his students.
He also examines how the philosophy in Eureka connects with the rest of Poe’s body of work, for example the themes of terror and hope found in many of his stories. Given my lack of familiarity with Poe, it’s not for me to critique those parts of Stamos’ thesis, or his challenging the interpretations of other Poe scholars, other than to say that it all seems to hang together. I’ll concentrate here on the bigger picture that Stamos paints.
For him, the central theme of Eureka is the ‘scientific imagination’ (Stamos’ term): ‘the educated imagination that takes in information that was available to others at the time but that arranges and adds to it in a strikingly new and superior way, a way that anticipates future understanding of the domain in question, future knowledge.’ Poe was trying to show that ‘great achievements in science were also great achievements in imagination.’ As the title suggests, he saw science as advancing not slowly and steadily but by sudden jumps – eureka moments – resulting from those imaginative leaps.
Laying the groundwork are two chapters dealing, respectively, with Poe’s literary theory and theology – which are intertwined in Eureka, which is why many find it is so strange. Eureka represents Poe’s ‘attempt to harmonize the science of his day with his theories of poetry and plot so as to provide a grand and panoramic answer to the meaning of the Universe.’ Nothing if not ambitious!
Poe’s religious view, which he himself described as ‘heretical in the extreme’, was that the Universe, and everything within it, including ourselves, is a manifestation (in his term a ‘Self-Diffusion’) of God: ‘panpsychism’ in modern terminology. He called the Universe ‘a Plot of God’, a phrase that Stamos dissects to show that Poe meant by this a ‘plot’ in the sense that a novel, or one of Poe’s own narrative poems such as ‘The Raven’, has a plot: the Universe is a tale, or poem, being told by God. Eureka, therefore, represents Poe ‘solving the mystery of the Universe by analogically identifying with the mind of God as Poet.’
Stamos doesn’t accept Poe’s view, but simply tries to show that it’s understandable. He does, however, ask whether, given physicists’ current grappling with the conundrum of the ‘fine tuning’ of the laws of physics, ‘can anyone be sure, looking a thousand years ahead, say, that some sort of theology will not play a more prominent role in scientific cosmology?’ (Indeed, Poe’s cosmology is strikingly like that of the ‘participatory universe’ proposed by physicists such as John Archibald Wheeler – as well as that of ancient schools such as Hermeticism and Neoplatonism.)
Still scene-setting, Stamos describes Poe’s intellectual background and his extraordinary learning – and prodigious memory – which encompassed an immense range of often obscure knowledge, combining ‘polymathy with monomania’, before going on to the nine ‘scientific anticipations’ in Eureka.
These are, briefly: the rejection of axioms as self-evidently true (one of the more abstruse for the modern reader, since this fundamental assumption of science in Poe’s day has since been demolished by discoveries such as non-Euclidean geometry and quantum mechanics); Big Bang cosmogony, including the concept of the Big Crunch (Poe thought we’re in the Universe’s contracting phase); the ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws of nature and the related anthropic principle; the non-existence of the laws of nature before the Big Bang; the solution to Olber’s paradox (that’s the one about why, if the Universe is infinite, the sky is dark at night, which wasn’t officially solved until 1901); multiverse theory; the interdependence of space and time (as later proved by Einstein); the equivalence of matter and energy (ditto); and the non-existence of the material ether.
He shows that (staggeringly to an outsider) none of these schools makes any allowance for eureka moments, revealing ‘an overall poverty in modern philosophy of science… when it comes to dealing with the role of imagination in the scientific process.’ A huge contrasts with Poe’s philosophy, which ‘views eureka moments as the main driving force of science.’
To make the point that imagination should be taken seriously, Stamos shows how central it was in the breakthroughs of the two scientists who have had the greatest impact on the modern world, Darwin and Einstein (the scientist ‘closest to Poe’).
This opens up a whole exploration of exactly how the scientific imagination works. Stamos homes in on the role of the unconscious mind (which Poe, in pre-Freud days, called ‘intuition’ and ‘double consciousness’). This was one of the reasons, Stamos argues, why madness and unusual states of mind feature so prominently in Poe’s tales, as a recognition that ‘madness can loosen the straightjacket and break the shackles of axiomatic and linear thinking – “logical” thinking – and open the door, especially for the educated imagination combined with monomania, to deeper truths about reality.’
Stamos looks at many examples of eureka moments in science and the circumstances in which they occurred. He also explores the common factors in genius, some expected, such as the importance of self-learning rather than formal education and of having a childlike curiosity, others less so, such as being a pet lover and not being a firstborn child.
He concludes that far from being (as cognitive science has it) dumb and passive, the unconscious is ‘the largest part of human mental functioning’: ‘the history of eureka moments alone… proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the unconscious is capable of profound intelligence, absolutely remarkable brilliance, and in the relatively few, genius.’. However, its insights can only break through when the conscious mind is inhibited – in dreams, moments of reverie, or periods of mental derangement from grief (which appears to have been the case with Poe when he wrote Eureka), depression or delirium through fever.
Finding the contribution of cognitive science to the subject sadly wanting, Stamos homes in on the recent findings of neuroscience about the workings of and relationship between the brain’s two hemispheres, summarising that the conscious mind ‘which resides in the left brain, is faced with problems in its environment that it tries to solve, collecting as much information as it can, but is limited by its single focus analytical, syntactical, and serial nature, while the unconscious mind in the right brain, with its synthetical, holistic, and metaphorical abilities, which are language independent, attempts … to solve the problem as a big picture.’ Then, ‘once the right brain has the solution to the problem … and the left brain is in a low-active receptive state, such as upon awakening or while doing something relaxed, the right brain sends the solution via the corpus callosum to the left brain.’
This leads to a philosophical discussion of what the self is (and whether it really exists), before finally places these discoveries in an evolutionary perspective – what the advantages of a ‘double brain’ are for survival. All fascinating stuff.
This isn’t only relevant to the Einsteins of the world, of course. As Stamos writes, ‘it is not just scientists, or artists, or Bedlamites, who achieve these moments of seemingly divine inspiration. We all have these experiences, albeit on a much smaller scale, if only we would pay attention when they happen.’ For him, eureka moments tell us something important about ourselves.
I’m sure that very little of Stamos’ central point of the role of the unconscious in inspiration will come as a revelation to most readers of this review. But what makes his book significant is his explanation of how the process actually works (and the fact that it will come as news to most philosophers of science, cognitive scientists and other professionals).
The above summary doesn’t do anything like justice to a book that is so broad in scope and, in keeping with Poe’s idea that the mind should be as open and wide-ranging as possible, so rich in ideas. Stamos displays an enormous erudition and mastery of a range of academic and scientific disciplines, and writes with eloquence.
I found Poe, Eureka, and Scientific Imagination an exhilarating read. It makes me want to read more Poe – and, for that matter, more David Stamos. – Clive Prince