A Moment of Direct Perception

Excerpt from "Holding Life Consciously," a conversation with Arthur Zajonc, On Being, June 24, 2010: 

Prof. Zajonc: People have a wrong kind of idea of how discoveries happen in science. They think you kind of calculate your way towards the discovery. It never works that way. You may embed yourself in the math. You may study it thoroughly or you may work within the lab context and have data sets that you're pouring over, but the insight comes in a flash. It's walking across a bridge in Dublin and inscribing the formula for the quaternions, how they're going to work, in pure mathematics. Or it's Newton seeing an apple fall. And when he sees the apple fall, he says, Well, that's exactly the same as the moon overhead. They look totally different, but he sees them as congruent with one another.

Then you get busy with the math and you say, Could that be? You get busy with the experiment that's going to confirm or disconfirm what it is you've just seen, but you've seen it intuitively.

You've seen it as what Goethe calls an aperçu, a moment of direct perception. And for Goethe, that moment of discovery was the key. Everything else that follows on is of less interest to him. His interests are less with the technical sides of science than with its application to human life, to the arts of course -- painting among other arts. And so he's interested in what he calls the sensory-moral, or sinnlich-sittliche, sensory-moral aspects of color.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. I mean, here's a sentence that you wrote: "Goethe forcefully holds our attention to the epiphanous moments in science, the poetry that is the heart of science." Explain that to me, "the poetry that is the heart of science."

Prof. Zajonc: Knowledge is not an object that you acquire. It's not a mechanism that somehow you provide to the human mind. It's actually an epiphanal moment. And I think this is true of the arts, poetry, painting, music, and I would say also to spiritual understanding.