David: Do you see yourself as a religious person, Greg?
GC: No, but I’ve been sort of driven to it by the mathematics I’ve been trying to do. I don’t see myself as a religious person, but I’m very interested in mysteries and deep questions. And I also have a very… I’m very responsive to a feeling of transcendence. I love going to the tops of mountains in the snow and seeing the view, feeling closer to God, or closer to the fundamental nature of reality. It’s an illusion, perhaps, but one gets to the top of a mountain in the winter with the snow, and you have this beautiful view…
David: Is it the feeling of the sublime? You know, people talk about there’s the beautiful, in the sense of pretty, and then there’s a beauty connected with some kind of a truth.
GC: Something so beautiful that it’s sublime…
David: Do you feel the same sense of transcendence when you see certain things in mathematics? Does that give you the same sense as being on top of a mountain?
GC: Absolutely, but if you’re reading a piece of work that was already done by someone else, it’s sort of like seeing a photograph of a mountain. That’s no fun. Or take going in a helicopter to the top of a mountain, which is unworthy. But if you struggle up the mountain yourself, then you see every inch of the mountain. You see all the views. You pay for it, and then at the top you’re worthy. And in the case of mathematics, if you’ve been struggling with questions that seem mysterious and incomprehensible, and all of a sudden you discover a viewpoint that makes it clear, that’s like an illumination all of a sudden.
I remember once I was going up a mountain. We made summit, and to make summit we had just broke through the cloud level. The summit was in – I wouldn’t say blinding sunlight, but beautiful sunlight. There was this white plain of the clouds, and sticking through it were these little toy mountains, because they were just the peaks, and that was just fantastic. It had only happened to me once in that extreme from, and that was just a wonderful moment.
That’s like the moment when I had struggled ten years with a bad mathematically formulated definition of randomness. The basic idea was right, but the way I dealt with it mathematically – the techniques – were wrong. It was very clumsy. And all of a sudden everything fell into place. It was as if I had been wearing glasses that distorted everything, and all of a sudden I put on a pair of glasses and everything’s sharp. It’s fantastic.
If you reduce everything to the shopping mall and what you see on television, then what’s the point of doing anything? So you have to see the Himalayan mountains out in the distance and think maybe Shiva is there. Or that there is a transcendent god who created everything and this is really a beautiful work of art that we have to understand.
David: You [to Ard] feel that very strongly, don’t you? That there should be a transcendent set of truths, or a god, out there and that somehow that is important?
Ard: That’s important. It’s inspiring.
David: As soon as you said that, I thought, that’s Ard.
GC: People need to be inspired. You have to get the energy to get creation from somewhere. You can have sexual energy; it can be from thinking about transcendental, spiritual things – whatever it is. It can be just because you’re crazy, I don't know. William Blake created this whole world in his poetry and his wife said his feet never touched the ground. He was always somewhere else. If all that exists is what you see in front of you, it’s too damn boring. The whole thing is pointless.
So I’m not sure that there’s a transcendent reality that is sublimely beautiful if we could know it, but I think it’s better to think that and look for it, than to give up and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a big, incomprehensible mess, and who cares?’
David: Let’s go shopping instead.
GC: Yeah, let’s be consumers, right, sure. You know, what is… What are we here for? Just to go to shopping malls and buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have?
David: Thank you.
Ard: That was great. Thank you. It was fantastic.
GC: It’s a pleasure.