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A Crack in Everything

A Crack in Everything

As part of Closer To Truth’s partnership with this year’s HowtheLightGetsIn festival, philosopher and founder of the Institute of Art and Ideas Hilary Lawson shares his thoughts on the event’s main theme of Dangers, Desires, and Destiny.

“A Crack in Everything”

By Hilary Lawson

At Glastonbury in 2008, Leonard Cohen was playing on the main Pyramid stage. I had always been something of a fan, but I was unsure whether to go, fearing that like the aging Bob Dylan, the experience might be rather painful and serve only to tarnish my previous memories. The reality was the reverse; Cohen was in spectacular form. Humble in front of the vast crowd, his age instead of counting against him gave his voice and songs a new impact, and the lyrics a poetic wonder I had not previously appreciated. I was not alone in this response. Many in the crowd were in tears. 

At one point he sang “Anthem”, a song I knew but I had never really listened to the words. Now I heard them for the first time and the central line of the chorus in particular: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. Once as a student I had imagined that through science we were gradually uncovering the truth about the universe and that in due course we might understand everything. As a philosopher, I came to appreciate that there is something illusory about this process. For it always appears as if we have nearly arrived, as if there are just a few gaps in our theories, a few puzzles to crack. 

The physicist Albert Michelson, responsible for one of the most significant experiments in the last hundred and fifty years that identified the speed of light was the same in all directions, said at the end of the 19th century “the important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered”. This was before Einstein, before quantum mechanics, before atomic energy, before the Standard model, the Big Bang theory, dark matter, and dark energy. He’s not alone. In the late 20th century, Hawking claimed once again that physics was on the edge of uncovering the theory of everything, and seeing as he put it into the mind of God. Twenty years later, in 2012, he changed his mind. He concluded no theory of everything was possible; instead, we operate with theories that function as models of the universe, and the universe is always something else altogether.

As a philosopher, I have been a long-standing critic of philosophical realism, the idea that our language and theories are able to describe the ultimate character of reality. So, it seems to me, the twelve-word chorus line “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” sums up the human condition. We can build our theories and narratives of the world, they can prove to hugely valuable and important, but they do not uncover the ultimate nature of things. And most importantly, the closer you look the more they fail. There is indeed a crack in everything. It is not just the beginning and end of the universe, or the nature of consciousness, if you look closely it is found in every concept we apply, every theory we believe certain. 

It is though the inevitable failure of our theories that enables us to find more appropriate alternatives. It is in the gaps, in the unknown, that we find the new and with it, excitement and potential. If you have any doubts about this, imagine a world in which the theory of everything really had arrived. We could close down our research departments and wind up our universities. There would be nothing left to discover. It’s just not plausible, is it? And if it did happen, it would be a chilling moment almost as if life was over. 

So it was that, the year following Cohen’s Glastonbury appearance, that HowTheLightGetsIn was chosen as the name of IAI’s first philosophy festival. At the time, philosophy to many seemed on the brink of irrelevance, locked in an ivory tower arguing over the meaning of words. The goal then, and now, is to return philosophy to big ideas and put them at the centre of our culture. Not in the belief that there is a single definitive truth to be found, but in the belief that there are new frames to be uncovered, new lands to explore, that might help to address the troubles and the potential of our time.

IAI and its festival, HowTheLightGetsIn, are driven by ideas, not by status of celebrity. There are many names you will recognize in the festival programme, and we are pleased to host Nobel prize winners, leading scientists and politicians, and award-winning authors. But we do not invite our speakers because of their fame. Instead, we develop and construct debates that we assess are at the edge of contemporary thought and seek out those who have the most interesting things to say. 

For this year’s HowTheLightGetsIn, May 24-27, there are 300 events across 12 stages. Debates and talks explore everything from whether it might be possible to exceed the speed of light, to whether talk of higher dimensions is a mistake, from asking if elections make any real difference to policy, to whether India will be the superpower of the 21st century, from questioning if AI is a threat to creativity, to addressing whether we can contain the power of the tech giants. And along the way there are hundreds of acts with music, comedy and performance. 

HowTheLightGetsIn is a festival unlike any other. You can discover original ideas and fresh ground-breaking perspectives. You can be transported by exciting bands, remarkable soloists, and comedians. Above all, if you share your thoughts and your company, and explore the cracks in your own ideas and those of our culture, light and magic is sure to come your way.   

Hilary Lawson is a philosopher and award-winning broadcaster who founded the IAI to bring philosophy and intellectual ideas into public discourse. He is also the Editorial Director of HowTheLightGetsIn, the world’s largest ideas and music festival.

HowTheLightGetsIn is the world’s largest ideas and music festival, taking place from May 24-27 in Hay-on-Wye. As a long-standing festival partner, we’re offering an exclusive 20% discount on tickets to all of our readers with the code CTT24. If you can’t attend in person, don’t worry. The festival’s online platform IAI.TV has a wealth of festival content to enjoy.

Don’t miss out on discounted tickets here with code CTT24.