My grandfather dedicated his life to teaching science to teenagers. As anyone who has tried before will tell you, it’s difficult to teach teenagers anything, considering the fact that they already know everything. Yet Grandpa was filled with such a powerful sense of wonder that, even though he sometimes found his pupils frustrating, he felt determined to instil in them a respect for the scientific method and the incredible potential it has always had for changing the course of history. He and my grandmother loved to load the car with their twin daughters and their camping equipment and make the long drive from Colorado to Cape Canaveral to witness the space shuttle launches. And even more frequently, they would chase every decent solar eclipse across the globe. Perhaps the upcoming eclipse has got me thinking about him even more than usual lately—but I know that it also has to do with the fact that I recently spent time with my grandmother, who was visiting Germany but has just flown back to the US specifically in order to get a supreme view of the eclipse from Nebraska. She hasn’t said as much in so many words, but I surmise that seeing the moon simultaneously humble and glorify the sun makes her feel closer to him.
In the years before his death, Grandpa’s health deteriorated to the degree that he wasn’t able to travel any longer. Meanwhile, my sister had blessed him with two great-granddaughters, upon whom he dutifully doted. But because they lived in Belgium, my grandfather had the opportunity to meet them only on the rare occasions when my sister was able to take the kids to him. Nevertheless, Grandpa and the girls had the opportunity to acquaint themselves with each other’s faces and voices due to the miracle of online video calling. He called my sister every day in order to see his young descendants, and allow them to see him and hear his gruff voice (think Jasper Beardly from the Simpsons mixed with Christian Bale’s Batman; it was exactly that).
He was so supremely blown away by the advancement of technology which made such video conferencing possible that he often said that the two most impressive scientific achievements during his lifetime were “the moon landing and Skype.” Considering the fact that he was born in 1934, that's quite an impressive endorsement. I also find it impressive that, as a man of science, the sense of wonder about the miraculousness of the ability to interact with another human being on the other side of the planet in real time was never lost on him. Many people take it for granted. But thinking about my grandfather often serves as a reminder for me that the more we know, the more we realise how much we don’t know.
Studies have demonstrated that when people experience a sense of awe, it increases their appreciation of and understanding for other beings, and increases the likelihood that they will engage in prosocial behaviour. The authors of this paper describe awe as the “sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” A rather rare example of this is called the “overview effect,” which happens when astronauts see the Earth from outer space for the first time. Every person who has encountered this experience talks about how seeing it all at once leaves an indelible impression on their consciousness—an ineffable sensation of “overwhelming emotion and feelings of identiﬁcation with humankind and the planet as a whole.” The sensation is so powerful on the astronaut’s first spacewalk that the space agencies have purportedly begun incorporating a fair amount of “awe time” into each astronaut’s first mission. Apparently it is unrealistic to assume that someone will be able to go floating out in space for the first time and complete whatever test or repair is necessary without first having the opportunity to try to bring their blown minds back into something resembling one piece.
Most of us will never have this opportunity, but life does provide us every day with plenty of chances to experience awe. It can happen, for example, when we look up at a night sky that is free from light pollution and see so many more stars than we had realised were there. Some folks might stop there and say that we need know nothing more in order to feel the full majesty of such a moment. As Jack Johnson (yes I love him don’t be pretentious) once sang, “There were so many fewer questions when/ Stars were still just the holes to heaven.” Yet I would say that the more we explore—and the more sophisticated our questions become—the more powerful the sense of awe. If we consider, for example, that the number of stars that we see (maybe 2500), even in a sky dense with twinkling lights, is only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the stars in our galaxy, and that our galaxy contains only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the stars in the universe...this is impressive to say the least. I certainly become even more dumbstruck when I consider, even for a moment, that the stars I am looking at are hundreds or thousands of light years away, so when I look at them I am literally seeing that far back in time. And it’s even more mind-blowing when I ponder on the fact that all of the molecules that make up this planet, including the ones that make up my body and those of everyone I love, were forged in the hearts of the very stars that I now see as I gaze up into the night. This knowledge gives me the same admixture of humility and glory that happens to the sun when it is eclipsed by the little tiny moon.
As anyone who dedicates their life to the pursuit of knowledge will tell you, the more you learn, the more you realise how much you don’t know. The more knowledge we gain, the more we can recognise the vastness of the unknown. As George Bernard Shaw so aptly said, “Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating ten more.” Many religious and spiritual people tend to eschew empirical knowledge because some part of them might worry that it will deaden the sense of wonder that they feel about life. Perhaps they fear that knowing things from a more pragmatic perspective might somehow put their spiritual freedom in a box. Yet ironically, the majority of spiritual belief systems tend to offer dogmas that drape a monolithic “because We said so” cloak over the mysteries of life. Such dogmatic thinking discourages true curiosity and often punishes the human impulse to question and doubt, and as such actually leaves people trapped in immutable ideological structures.
Embracing the greater degrees of uncertainty toward which learning can paradoxically lead us only adds to the ability to approach the world with a sense of wonder. Dogmatic explanations about the nature of the world place a certain set of boundaries on the kinds of questions people are allowed to ask. If an authority figure tells us that God created the world in seven days, then tells us that we risk eternal damnation in the flames of hell if we question that assertion, we agree to live within the confines of a paradigm in which asking too many questions becomes detrimental to our well-being. This may serve as a means of assuaging some small part of us that seeks the kind of security that only a sense of certainty can give us; however, this security will ultimately prove illusory if and when we realise that such certainty cannot exist.
As neuroscientist Stuart Firestein makes quite clear, the most valuable thing that science offers is not certainty, but ignorance. Firestein is careful to distinguish what he refers to as “low-quality” ignorance—which is the product of stupidity and often wilful prejudice—from what James Clerk Maxwell charmingly refers to as “thoroughly conscious ignorance.” Firestein posits that the more evidence, data, and factual information science can give us, the clearer we can be about how much we are ignorant about. This is the kind of ignorance that Erwin Schrödinger insisted upon when he wrote
In an honest search for knowledge you quite often have to abide by ignorance for an indefinite period… The steadfastness in standing up to [this requirement], nay in appreciating it as a stimulus and a signpost to further quest, is a natural and indispensable disposition in the mind of a scientist.
For all human beings, not just for scientists, abiding by this ignorance enables us to ask questions that are more meaningful, penetrating, and interesting. The ability for people to frame these kinds of questions is precisely what dogmatic authority figures fear, because interesting questions always challenge, and often undo, the status quo. We need only look to Socrates, the man most people regard as the father of Western philosophy, to see how true this is. Socrates’ modus operandi entailed asking deep questions about subjects that are incredibly tempting to take for granted, and it was this very method of questioning that led the authorities of his time to accuse him, “firstly, of denying the gods recognised by the state and introducing new divinities, and, secondly, of corrupting the youth.” A dram of hemlock later and Socrates confirmed rhetoric’s most famous syllogism.
Fast-forward to 2017, and it suddenly seems plain enough that Socrates was onto something. As philosopher Simon Critchley recently stated in an interview with Russell Brand, "The point of philosophy is to corrupt the youth. If we're not corrupting the youth, we're doing something wrong." Critchley means that, if philosophy—or any form of critical thinking—is to be effective, we need to get the younger generations’ minds working in a way that will help them to escape the rigidly unhelpful structures that have remained in place for far too long.
A recent discussion with my grandmother about her relationship with her late husband left me deeply impressed about the interface between knowledge and mystery. Grandpa was a taciturn man, the quintessential “strong silent type” that were so often the products of a childhood in Depression-era American West.
“I wish Roy had been more talkative,” my grandmother confided in me. “I wish I knew how he really felt about me.” Hearing her speak these words was simultaneously mind-blowing, heartbreaking, and inspiring. Here is a woman who spent 60 years with him, and undoubtedly knew him better than anyone else on the planet knew him. If there were ever to be an authority on the man that was Roy Edwin Urch, it would have been his lifelong partner. (Having observed the two of them together in life, I have the fullest confidence that he loved her to the moon and back; it was simply something I could always see in the way that he looked at her, and also in the way that he spoke about her when she wasn’t around.)
What I find so inspiring about my grandmother’s words, however, is that she still felt a sense of immense mystery about her husband in spite of the fact that she knew him so well. This provides a poignant paradigm for the relationship between knowledge and mystery in general: there really is no need to fear that knowing more about something or someone will reduce the mystery. Many people have this fear about relationships as well as about scientific knowledge. I’m sure we all know people who have a hard time with romance because they would rather fall in love with some idealised image of somebody than get to know the intricacies of the actual flesh-and-blood human being. They may even be conscious of the fact that they want to preserve a level of unfamiliarity in order to keep things feeling novel and fresh. Yet underlying this desire is, of course, often a fear of intimacy which we can usually extend to their relationship with themselves.
Yet when you think about even the relationships we have with ourselves, it is obvious that we will never know ourselves fully enough to entirely eclipse the sense of mystery about who we are. In fact, the more sophisticated our understanding of ourselves becomes, the more likely we are to surprise ourselves—in spite of the fact that we are more or less able to read our own minds. What’s true about how we relate to the unknown within ourselves must be even more true when it comes to others. And what’s true about our relationship to another individual must be infinitely more true about life and the universe as a whole. Getting to know more and more about the inner workings, the sophistication, and the elegance of how the universe came about, how it fits together, and how it perpetuates itself is a genuinely humbling and awe-inspiring pursuit. And I can't think of many things that could be more worthwhile.