Science and the Human Condition According to Emily Levine


Emily Levine
Emily Levine is a philosopher-comedian. In this 2011 TED video, she talks about science, math, society and the way everything connects. 

Borrowing from Lewis Hyde’s book Trickster Makes This World: Myschief, Myth, and Art, at minute 13:09, she says:

trickster is a change agent. And the qualities that I’m about to describe are the qualities that make it possible to make change happen. And one of these is boundary crossing. I think this is what so, in fact, infuriated the scientists. But I like to cross boundaries. I like to, as I said, talk about things I know nothing about.

[…] And I think it’s good to talk about things I know nothing about because I bring a fresh viewpoint to it, you know?

[…] And you know people, this is the problem with quote, objectivity, unquote. When you’re only surrounded by people who speak the same vocabulary as you, or share the same set of assumptions as you, you start to think that that’s reality. Like economists, you know, their definition of rational, that we all act out of our own economic self-interest.

Boundary crossing is one of the qualities of a trickster, or change agent.

And another is, non-oppositional strategies. And this is instead of contradiction. Where you deny the other person’s reality, you have paradox where you allow more than one reality to coexist.

I think there’s another philosophical construction. I’m not sure what it’s called. But my example of it is a sign that I saw in a jewelry store. It said, “Ears pierced while you wait.”

Another attribute of the trickster is smart luck. 

The trickster has a mind that is prepared for the unprepared. That, and I will say this to the scientists, that the trickster has the ability to hold his ideas lightly so that he can let room in for new ideas or to see the contradictions or the hidden problems with his ideas. I had no joke for that. I just wanted to put the scientists in their place.

How Levin likes to make change is by making connections. 

And what I hope to do, when I make these connections, is short circuit people’s thinking. You know, make you not follow your usual train of association, but make you rewire. It literally — when people say about the shock of recognition, it’s literally re-cognition, rewiring how you think…

Two more things for a trickster. She has to walk a fine line, and sometimes she can trip into beauty.

But to do that you have to lose all the other qualities because once you’re into beauty you’re into a finished thing. You’re into something that occupies space and inhabits time. It’s an actual thing. And it is always extraordinary to see a thing of beauty.

And the other characteristic of a trickster is that she doesn’t have a home.

Levine’s skill is poking holes in our fixed ideas and bringing hidden truths to light. Without the connections and the small disruptions she brings to our thinking, we would have an example of cultural stagnation. Art, storytelling, and all forms of expression happen within the context of our times. This is Hyde’s insight via Levine. And that is an idea worth spreading.


Conversation Agent – Valeria Maltoni