What does it take to conjure a sense of wonder? Does it take understanding or a sense of the mysterious? If you are a science buff like me, you will probably ponder this question a few moments before realizing that it is the wrong one to ask. However, it seems like there is a lot of people out there who will answer: “the mysterious, of course!” without giving it much thought. This kind of thinking makes my usually calm and patient self evaporate.
All the scientists named Richard that I know of who wrote popular science books talk about this issue. In Unweaving the Rainbow, Richard Dawkins argues that knowing more about how a rainbow come into being doesn’t take away the sense of awe that is felt upon seeing one (although a small dose of scientific thinking may prevent you from going completely nuts over a double rainbow). Richard Feynman talks repeatedly about this as well. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Feynman talks about his artist friend who thinks he can appreciate flowers more than scientists.
I guess the feeling that further understanding strips away your sense of wonder is understandable. I felt it myself many times before, and I still struggle with it every day. Nothing hits harder than being told that free will is an illusion, or that there is no possible way our minds can outlive our bodies. There is a sense of depressing disillusionment associated with learning how things actually are, especially when it crushes our hopes. I suppose we need to grieve our private vision of reality, as it slowly dies due to its encounter with actual reality.
The problem with the people who want to stick with mystery and keep away from understanding is that they imagine that once your hopes about the nature of reality are dead, nothing takes their place. Only nihilism remains. Well, you can only come to that conclusion if you mix in two pernicious ingredients: a poor imagination and a profound lack of curiosity.
For example, let’s say that Vanessa learns that flowers could not have been created by an all-powerful being. It takes a poor imagination to believe that no other explanation for the existence of the flower can be as emotionally fulfilling. Fortunately, Vanessa has a lot of imagination. In fact, she has enough imagination to realize that there’s more out there than she can herself imagine. She recognizes that she can’t figure out the world from inside her own head. Her own curiosity comes to the rescue. She soon learns about biology and evolution, and she finds in it an extraordinary explanation for the existence of flowers. Flowers are the result of a molecular dance of replication that started billions of years ago, a runaway process that cannot do anything but generate unbelievable diversity. We turn out to be distant cousins of the plants producing flowers. How many questions does that single fact arouse into your mind? Isn’t that what wonder truly is? If no questions comes to you after learning this, you have a sad curiosity deficiency.
You see, learning more about the Universe we live in is a never-ending quest. The more we learn, the more questions must be asked and the deeper the mysteries we try to solve. The mysterious never goes away. It just becomes more subtle, more enthralling, more fascinating. Learning what science has figured out about the world is the only way to entertain a genuine sense of wonder and mystery, since the truly mysterious is at the edge of our knowledge. But the edge of our knowledge is like a coastal line. It appears finite in length, but the closer you look, the more twisted it becomes. It may be closer than you think. There are things we don’t know everywhere around us, but one has to know about science to know what we don’t know.
Personally, I feel awe every time I realize something is too complex for my mind to grasp. I can walk outside by a beautiful day and start thinking about the clouds over my head. I will see the complex network of air currents around and in the cloud, giving it its particular shape. These currents arise from differences in temperatures, caused by the local wind, the amount of heat stored and released in the ground around me, which depends on the tree over here, the house over there. It will depend on how much light the sun is sending our way this day, the number of sun spots. It will depend on how much light the sun has been sending our way two days ago, when the water that is now making the cloud was first evaporating from the sea five hundred kilometers away. Everything has a part to play. And that is just for one silly cumulus. Imagine the awe I can feel when I start thinking about living creatures. The solar system. The galaxies. Human society. A single human being. Even computers and the Internet.
I will leave you with one dramatic example of what I mean. It has been in the scientific press lately that hormones called oxytocin and cortisol seem to have a profound role to play in the phenomenon we refer to as love. I can hear these people from a distance: “So love is just a molecule now? How disappointing. When will science leave our romantic notions alone?” These people are indeed, depressing.
After learning about these hormones and their potential role in the love formula, I had the exact opposite reaction. Love turns out to be more than just some intangible confabulation of our brain. We can measure it, we can see it running through our veins. Love is real! Next time I feel it, I might feel it twice as strongly just because of that!
This is what happens when someone outgrows the childish tendency to hold on to wishful fantasies. There is a radical shift in perspective at some point, a light at the end of the ‘nihilism tunnel’. Reality turns out to be more wonderful than we can ever suppose: we just need the patience to bear with it all the way. After all, it doesn’t really matter how we feel about reality. It won’t change a thing, except maybe how much we delude ourselves. From my experience, sticking with reality no matter how I feel about it is very rewarding emotionally. Sooner or later, understanding things as they really are have the power to bring about tears of awe.