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JWST and the sorites paradox

Where does beauty end and ugliness begin?

The team operating NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) released its first full-colour image early on July 12, and has promised some more from the same set in the evening. The image is a near-infrared shot of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster some 4.6 billion lightyears away. According to a press release accompanying the image’s release, the field of view – which shows scores of galaxies as well as several signs of gravitational lensing (which is evident only when very large distances are involved) – is equivalent to the area occupied by a grain of sand held at arm’s length from the eyes.

I’m personally looking forward to the telescope’s shot of the Carina Nebula: the Hubble space telescope’s images of this emission nebula were themselves stunning, so the JWST’s shot should be more so!

Gazing at the JWST’s first image brought to my mind the sorites paradox. Its underlying thought-experiment might resonate with you were you to ponder the classical limit of quantum physics or the concept of emergence as Philip Warren Anderson elucidated it as well. Imagine a small heap of sand before you. You pick up a single grain from the heap and toss it away. Is the sand before you still in a heap? Yes. You put away another grain and check. Still a heap. So you keep going, and a few thousand checks later, you find that you have before you a single grain of sand. Is it still a heap? If your answer is ‘yes’, the follow-up question arises: how can a single grain of sand be a heap? If ‘no’, then when did the heap stop being a heap?

Another way to conjure the same paradox is to start with one grain of sand and which is evidently not a heap. Then you add one more grain, which is also not a heap, and one more and one more and so forth. Using modus ponens supplies the following line of reasoning: “One mote isn’t a heap. And if one mote isn’t a heap, then two motes don’t make a heap either. And three motes don’t make a heap either. And so on until: if 9,999 motes don’t make a heap, then 10,000 motes don’t make a heap either.” But while straightforward logic has led you to this conclusion, your sense-experience is clear: what lies before you is in fact a heap.

The paradox came to mind because it’s hard not to contemplate the fact that both the photograph and the goings-on in India at the moment – from the vitriolic bigotry that’s constantly being mainstreamed to the arrest and harassment of journalists, activists and other civilians, both by the ruling dispensation – are the product of human endeavour. I’m not interested in banal expressions of the form “we’re all in this together” (we’re not) or “human intelligence and ingenuity can always be put to better use” (this is useless knowledge); instead, I wonder what the spectrum of human actions – which personal experience has indicated repeatedly to be continuous and ultimately ergodic – looks like that encompasses, at two extremes, actions of such beauty and of such ugliness. When does beauty turn to ugliness?

Or are these terms discernible only in absolutes – that is, that there is no lesser or higher beauty (or ugliness) but only one ultimate form, and that like the qubits of a quantum computer, between ultimate beauty and ultimate ugliness there are some indeterminate combinations of each attribute for which we have no name or understanding?

I use ‘beauty’ here to mean that which is deemed worthy of preservation and ‘ugliness’, of erasure. The sorites paradox is a paradox because of the vague predicates: ‘heap’, for example, has no quantitative definition. Similarly, I realise I’m setting up vague, as well as subjective, predicates when I set up beauty and preservation in the way that I have, so let me simplify the question: how do I, how do you, how do we reconcile the heap of sand that is the awesome deep-field shot of a distant galaxy cluster with the single grain of sand that is the contemporary political reality of India? Is a reconciliation even possible – that is, is there still a continuous path of thought, aspiration and action that could take a people seeped in hate and violence to a place of peaceability, tolerance and openness? Or have we fundamentally and irredeemably lost a part of ourselves that has turned us non-ergodic, that will keep us now and for ever from experiencing certain forms of beauty?

Language and the words that we use about ourselves will play a very important part here – the adjectives we save for ourselves versus those for the people or ideas that offend us, the terms in which we conceive of and describe our actions, everything from the order of words of our shortest poems to that of jargon of our courts’ longest judgments. Our words help us to convince ourselves, and others, that there is beauty in something even if it isn’t readily apparent. A bhakt might find in the annals of OpIndia and The Organiser the same solace and inspiration, and therefore the virtue of preserving what he finds to be beautiful, that a rational progressivist might find in Salvage or Viewpoint. This is among other things because language is how we map meaning to experience – the first point of contact between the material realm and human judgment, an interaction that will forever colour every moral, ethic and justicial conclusion to come after.

This act of meaning-making is also visible in physics, where there are overlapping names for different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum because the names matter more for the frequencies’ effects on the human body. Similarly, in the book trade, genre definitions can be overlapping – The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu is both sci-fi and fantasy, for example – because they matter largely for marketing.

One way or another, I’m eager, but not yet desperate, for an answer that will keep the door open for some measure of reversibility – and not for the bhakts but for those engaged in pushing back against their ilk. (The bhakts can go to hell.) The cognitive dissonance otherwise – of a world that creates things and ideas worth preserving and of a world that creates things and ideas worth erasing – might just break my ability to be optimistic about the human condition.

Featured image: The JWST’s image of the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.