Sunday, 24 February 2008

Phony Forms of Wonder

wonder woman
Ludwig WittgensteinRichard Dawkins
Not How the World is, but That it is,
is the Mystical

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.44.

There are two reactions to the world which to my mind are poor substitutes for an experience I want to hive off as 'genuine wonder'. The terms (what we decide to call 'wonder') don't matter; what matters are the distinctions between the reactions. And such distinctions really do matter because different personal reactions constitute the motivational and meaningful structure of diverse human activities, forms of life, and character traits - such as profound humility and respect, scientific inquiry and discipline, worshipfulness, and self-deluding mystery-mongering and sentimental pseudo-spirituality. Conflating these causes much misunderstanding, failures of acknowledgement, and cultural debasement. One of the ways in which the two forms of 'pseudo wonder' can be separated from 'genuine wonder' is through their proclivity to induce in us the felt need for explanation: for an explanation of how the world is the way it is, rather than, instead of an explanation, an awed acknowledgement that it is. I'll be tracking this and related distinctions in what follows.

Type One

Here is one experience I often have, an experience that I think can easily lead to superstitious forms of religion if it isn't adequately interrogated and checked. Perhaps I am in a somewhat alienated state of mind when I have it. I am cutting a bit of wood to size for the wardrobe I am making; it suddenly occurs to me when I start to reflect: Isn't it a bit of luck that I live on a planet where trees exist, where wood can be cut from them, where it lasts when stored, that it has the requisite structural properties, and so on! What are the chances of that?!

Or perhaps I think: Isn't it just amazing that the earth is just the right distance from the sun so that we don't all burn up?! Or: Isn't it a miracle that the water on the planet does not all evaporate away?! The thoughts tend to be of the form: My word, if things had been just a little bit different than they are, then my life would have been pretty damn impossible!

Now I don't want to deny that there may be a genuine thought or feeling or reaction which is getting badly expressed and perhaps contorted into a merely mystery-mongering form here; I'll return to this possibility below. But I do want to expose the form of the tacit fallacy which, it seems to me, is principally what guides their articulation and, I suspect, much of their very occurrence. And here an appreciation of the fact that the thoughts occur in a somewhat alienated, but also a somewhat narcissistic, state of mind is I think important.

The fallacy is as follows: If I tacitly start from a (narcissistic) position of my own existence taken as a given then, when I step out of my ongoing being-in-the-world for a moment, it can start to seem that the fact that the world around me just so incredibly slots into place will seem like an extraordinary coincidence. (It may be that this experience is restricted to people, such as myself, who live in comfortable freedom from war and famine.) The state I am thinking of as self-regarding may in certain ways even be extended to include the rest of humanity, or even all living things. In such cases I think: It is incredible that our Sun is such as to support our life, that the planet is the right distance from it. What are the chances of that? It may seem a bit daft to call an identification with the whole of life 'narcissistic'. But what I have in mind is just the tacit prior decision to take myself, or people, or life, as the fulcrum, the still point, around which everything else must turn, against which everything else can be measured. (This issue, or a closely related one, has been discussed in terms of the 'anthropic principle').

Leave this 'phony sense of wonder' uninterrogated and it can seem to us that we are in need of a pretty damn good explanation as to how things can be set up so nicely for us. Perhaps we feel a deistic need to invoke a creator god who, with our best interests at heart, set things up so nicely for us.

But it seems to me that, ironically, such forms of 'religious' belief are really grounded in a profound narcissism. For a condition of their (apparent) possibility is our taking ourselves as that around which everything else should turn. Furthermore, their root in an unhelpful state of alienation can be seen from the fact that we do not seem to be counting ourselves just as a contingent part of the universe, but rather as something set apart from the rest. One way of describing this is that we have started to view ourselves as externally rather than internally related to the world.

If we reverse the picture, and see ourselves as a contingent part of the universe, then the fact that there is only a 1 in a billion (or what-have-you) chance that the universe is 'set up right' (! - note the narcissism inherent in the very language: right for us is the tacit implicitur) will seem no more astonishing than that there is similarly only a 1 in a billion chance that some other configuration of things obtained. What would be the chances, we could say, that this particular configuration of non-life-supporting world arises in which material objects can become no larger than footballs? How extraordinary - such a tiny probability must demand from us some deistic explanation! And so on.

In trying to articulate the form of the intellectual disingenuity underlying this particular phony form of wonder, I find myself thinking of Wittgenstein's talk of 'fitting' in his discussions regarding the relation between an intentional state (my desire for an icecream) and the conditions which satisfy it (my being presented with one): Philosophical Grammar, p. 134:

It seems as if the expectation and the fact satisfying the expectation fitted together somehow. Now one would like to describe an expectation and a fact which fit together, so as to see what this agreement consists in. Here one thinks at once of the fitting of a solid into a corresponding hollow. But when one wants to describe these two one sees that, to the extent that they fit, a single description holds for both. (On the other hand compare the meaning of: "These trousers don't go with this jacket"!)

If we imagine that the desire and its conditions of satisfaction are externally related, then we start to think that there must be something which explains how they fit together. Just as, for example, we might think there must be something which explains just how this wooden shape fits so very nicely through this hole in this children's toy (for example, we realise that the two were made by someone for each other). On the other hand, if we see the desire and its satisfaction as internally related, then we realise that any sense of astonishment or apparent need for explanation is a function of a confusion which would be akin to that manifest in drawing a circle on a white page with a black pen, and then asking how it can be and just what are the chances that the white disk fits so very nicely into the black outline.

It is not the case, then, that the universe is set up ever so nicely for us. Rather, we are a function of it. If it weren't as it is, then we wouldn't be here to ask our misguided questions; and that is the end of the story. Properly handled, evolutionary theory can help us, here, to (sometimes painfully) overcome this particular manifestation of our narcissism. Any 'faith' which is erected on such narcissistic foundations is surely a poor thing indeed, the amazingness of the deus ex machina simply being a deferred function of the putative amazingness that we have, ab initio and sine causa, presupposed to characterise our own existences.

Type Two

A similar confusion, which involves an impoverished version of 'wonder', is I believe often present in works of popular science. The authors in question may certainly have overcome any of the superstitious tendencies of type one mystery mongering. Nevertheless they consistently confuse a kind of amazed bafflement about how the world works for the kind of mystery which manifests in, for example, Wittgenstein's wonder that the world exists.

(Heidegger's discussion of how the Greek concept of wonder degenerated into curiosity in Basic Questions of Philosophy deals with what is surely a closely related concern. Consider the following, for example (p. 135):

It has long been known that the Greeks recognized thaumazein as the “beginning” of philosophy. But it is just as certain that we have taken this thaumazein to be obvious and ordinary, something that can be accomplished without difficulty and can even be clarified without further reflection.For the most part, the usual presentations of the origin of philosophy out of thaumazein result in the opinion that philosophy arises from curiosity. This is a weak and pitiful determination of origin, possible only where there has never been any reflection on what is supposed to be determined here in its origin.

I have just found an excellent treatment of this Heideggarian theme by the philosopher Brad Elliot in his paper Curiosity as the Thief of Wonder: An Essay on Heidegger's Critique of the Ordinary Conception of Time. Another super work, by the way, is Gerald Bearn's Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein's Existential Investigations.)

Richard Dawkins is, I believe, a good example of a writer with this tendency. Dawkins is excellent at selling us the marvels of science, and excellent too, I believe, at providing lucid and imaginative expositions of evolutionary theory. But, especially in his critique of religion, he always seems to me to read wonder along the 'wonder how' rather than 'wonder that' lines. (I ought to say immediately that I do not have a 100% convincing textual argument for this, and so would encourage the reader to take a sceptical stance towards what I'm writing. Nevertheless,) Dawkins' reasoning often seems to be that science can indeed solve mysteries, and that in the process it usually uncovers greater mysteries (so we don't need to be worried - as, supposedly, were Keats and Blake, for example - that science may diminish our sense of the mystery of things).

I have no doubt that scientific discovery does indeed sometimes proceed in the glowing way Dawkins describes (at other times it is surely just, well, rather boring). But consider the following from his essay/talk Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder:

I think that the appetite for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we do not understand, is healthy and to be fostered. It is the same appetite which drives the best of true science, and it is an appetite which true science is best qualified to satisfy.
There is an appetite for wonder, and isn't true science well qualified to feed it?
It's often said that people 'need' something more in their lives than just the material world. There is a gap that must be filled. People need to feel a sense of purpose. Well, not a BAD purpose would be to find out what is already here, in the material world, before concluding that you need something more. How much more do you want? Just study what is, and you'll find that it already is far more uplifting than anything you could imagine needing.

Now if and when the mystery in question is something for which we have an appetite, it very well may be something which science can satisfy - satisfy at least as successfully as (what Dawkins is also talking about here) pursuing an interest in the paranormal. But what about the non-appetitive wonder which can sometimes overtake us, and which gets expressed in peculiar aphorisms such as Wittgenstein's (that the world exists, not how it exists), or which may lie behind questions such as 'why is there something rather than nothing?'. (Furthermore, it isn't clear to me what such a sense of mystery has to do with our requiring a 'sense of purpose'. That latter sense, along with the related 'need for meaning', may well have more to do with how we manage our narcissistic injuries than with any capacity to put aside our self-concern and simply marvel at the suchness of things. (Didn't Job come to a surer faith, not when he finally understood the putative purpose of his many plagues and disasters, but when he undid his transference neurosis to God and came to a new form of relationship with Him not modelled on the doer / done-to schema?))

This 'genuine' sense of wonder is, I believe, something which easily gets covered over in practice, poorly articulated into questions and expressions which speak more to our need to feel some sense of cognitive mastery over something which currently exceeds our cognitive grasp, and becomes quite mangled in the process. There is, I myself believe, a sense of wonder which is not only expressed in our amazement that the world exists, but also in our awe at the simple facts of (for example) consciousness, comprehension, life, substantiality, sound, light, and fellow-feeling. Such a sense indexes, I believe, and amongst other things, the fact that certain kinds of explanations come to an end in the face of these phenomena. This is not to say that they may not be causally explained, nor that we may not investigate them scientifically. But when it comes to saying what they essentially are, when it comes to our ontological investigations, we need to recognise that 'our spade is turned'. We need to learn to feel and hear the distinctive sound our spade makes when it hits against this particular ontological foundation stone. Such stones are not to be articulated in terms of some putatively more readily understood phenomenon, but appreciated as the sui generis phenomena that they are. Part of our wonder here is a sense of our acknowledgement of the fact that we cannot master such phenomena mentally. To use a distinction owed to Jean Piaget, we must ourselves accommodate to these phenomena, rather than assimilate them according to some other schema of understanding. In practice, however, the sense of wonder often gets worked over into the kind of mystery that Dawkins describes - an acquisitive desire to penetrate or assimilate, to develop or discover a measure up against which they can be held.

I want to make it clear that I have nothing against the development of such measures or against the noble scientific impulse. To the extent that science can penetrate mysteries, then good luck to it. To the extent however that the scientific sensibility becomes the sensibility - to the extent that all forms of mystery are subtly, casually, without even thinking about it, turned into wondering how rather than that - and a form of relating to the universe is thereby subtly shut off to us - to this extent, in such contexts only, is the scientific temperament is to be resisted.

Finally, a ridiculously short note on religion. There are those who would sympathetically interpret 'true' religion just as that mode of appreciation and wonder that I have been describing. To my mind what gets called religion is, however, in so many ways, shot through with superstition and with those 'phony' forms of wonder which, as I described above, stem ultimately more from our own narcissism than from a humility before the facts of life. My sympathies frequently change, but at the time of writing I must acknowledge that to decide to hold up religious discourse and religious impulse as the form of our recognition or articulation of genuine wonder would at the very least necessitate a whole program of apologetics and hermeneutics (directed at religious texts) which may detract, rather than better clear a place for, our sense of wonder that the world is. Rather than spend time undoing superstitious or narcissitic readings of religious texts, readings that I believe do frequently come not at all unnaturally, our time may be better spent articulating the form of, confessing our moments of, and teasing apart the phony distant cousins from the real phenomenon of, genuine wonder.