Writing in The New York Times, Tim Kreider wonders if the immediate availability of information has robbed us of the romance of not knowing:

Instant accessibility leaves us oddly disappointed, bored, endlessly craving more. I’ve often had the experience of reading a science article that purported to explain some question I’d always wondered about, only to find myself getting distracted as soon as I started reading the explanation. Not long ago the Hubble telescope observed that Pluto’s surface is changing rapidly, and noticeably reddening. It’s not a bland white ball of ice, but the color of rust and soot. We’re not likely to learn anything more until the New Horizons spacecraft gets there in 2015. In the meantime, we just get to wonder.

I find this mysterious and tantalizing. As soon as I began reading possible explanations — ultraviolet light interacting with chemicals, blah blah blah — I started to lose interest. Just knowing that there is an answer is somehow deflating. If some cryptozoologist actually bagged a Yeti and gave it a Latin name, it would just be another animal. An intriguing animal, no doubt, but would it really be any more bizarre or improbable than a giraffe or a giant squid?

We’ll return to that in a moment. He closes with this:

I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill.

Fear not! If there’s one thing a decade of teaching has shown me, it’s that today’s kids are better than ever at not knowing things.

Anyway, Kreider’s lament is a familiar one. A sagacious letter writer sets him straight:

Tim Kreider (“In Praise of Not Knowing,” Op-Ed, June 19) gets it half right. Retaining a sense of mystery and wonder about our living world is a keen source of joy for children — for all of us. But to take in emerging answers about the nature of Pluto or newly discovered animal species needn’t kill off that joy! Answer-seeking in science leads far less often to dry explanation than to fresh excitement.

Mr. Kreider invokes a future cryptozoologist who bags a Yeti, but let’s look instead at the real world. Jane Goodall and generations of primate scientists have now observed chimpanzees in the wild for almost 50 years. Each hard-won answer about ape social behavior, tool-using or emotional bonds brings on new waves of questions — and thus new waves of wonder.

The notion that science somehow robs nature of its beauty and mystery has been tossed off by a number of writers. Let us not forget Keats’ musings on the perils of cold philosophy:

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?

There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:

We know her woof, her texture; she is given

In the dull catalogue of common things.

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine -

Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made

The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Walt Whitman was even more scathing:

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;

When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;

When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

That’s downright dickish. Edgar Allan Poe also piled on:

Science! True daughter of Old Time thou art!

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?

And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Of course, the scientists have not been idle in the face of such effrontery. When Richard Dawkins’ wrote a book length discussion of the beauty and poetry of science, he taunted Keats by titling it Unweaving the Rainbow. And Isaac Asimov gave Whitman a piece of his mind:

I imagine that many people reading those lines tell themselves, exultantly, “How true! Science just sucks all the beauty out of everything, reducing it all to numbers and tables and measurements! Why bother learning all that junk when I can just go out and look at the stars?”

That is a very convenient point of view since it makes it not only unnecessary, but downright aesthetically wrong, to try to follow all that hard stuff in science. Instead, you can just take a look at the night sky, get a quick beauty fix, and go off to a nightclub.

The trouble is that Whitman is talking through his hat, but the poor soul didn’t know any better.

This is the start of a short essay pointing out that a knowledge of science, far from robbing the stars of their poetry, simply adds a whole new dimension to their beauty. When you think about it, the argument put forth by Keats, Whitman and Poe, is pretty obviously silly.

We’ve been getting a lot of rain around here lately. The other day I walked outside after several hours in my office. I was still thinking (and muttering) about whatever I had been doing, when suddenly I looked up and saw a perfect rainbow. My exact thoughts were, “Whoa! That’s really pretty.” And do you know what it didn’t even occur to me to think? “Darn it! I’d be able to enjoy that if only I didn’t know that it’s just something that happens when light refracts through moisture in the air.”

I’m reminded of something I once heard a mathematician say. It’s not math that people don’t like. It’s being confused. Indeed, when a student asks, with disgust, “What is this good for?” he usually doesn’t actually care what the math is good for. More often it’s just an expression of disgust and frustration. The student is really saying, “I don’t understand what you’re doing!”

When I first read Kreider’s essay, arguing that something is lost when the mystery is resovled, the first thing I thought of was the conclusion of this passage from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Headed League.” Holmes is discussing a new client with Watson:

Sherlock Holmes’s quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.

Mr. Jabez Wilson started up in his chair, with his forefinger upon the paper, but his eyes upon my companion.

“How in the name of good-fortune, did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?” he asked. “How did you know, for example, that I did manual labor. It’s as true as gospel, for I began as a ships carpenter.”

“Your hands, my dear sir. You’re right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.

“Well, the snuff, then, and the Freemasonry?”

“I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order, you use an arc-and-compass breastpin.”

“Ah, of course, I forgot that. But the writing?”

“What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk.”

“Well, but China?”

“The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been doen in China. I have made a small study of tattoo marks, and have even contributed to the literature of the subject. That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China. When, in addition, I see a Chinese coin hanging from your watch-chain, the matter becomes even more simple.”

Mr. Jabez Wilson laughed heavily. “Well, I never!” said he. “I thought at first that you had done something clever, but I see that there was nothing in it after all.”

“I begin to think, Watson,” said Holmes, “that I make a mistake in explaining. `Omne ignotum pro magnifico,’ you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid. ”

The Latin, by the way, means “Everything unknown appears magnificent.”

Magic is something of a hobby of mine, especially sleight of hand with cards. One of the first things you hear about magic is that it loses all its appeal when you know how the tricks are done, but I’ve never found that to be the case. Quite the opposite, and for exactly the same reason we have already discussed. Knowing how the tricks are done provides an additional layer of beauty to the performance. After all, even when the magician manages to fool me, I know that ultimately the explanation is something simple, the kind of thing that would make me feel dumb as soon as it is explained. There’s always a trap door, or a strategically placed mirror, or something like that. It’s really the showmanship that is appealing, not the thought that you have actually seen something that is miraculous. And when I see a performer perfectly execute some sleight or other, I can enjoy not just the patter and the storytelling, but the technical proficiency as well. It’s like watching a juggler. I can see exactly what he’s doing, but I can still be amazed by the skill with which he does it.

So that’s it. If you don’t like science, well, that’s just different strokes for different folks. But don’t pretend that it’s somehow noble for you not to explore or investigate or to wallow in ignorance. Life already provides us with enough insoluble mysteries to ponder. We don’t need to create more by pretending we know less than we do.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew
    June 25, 2011

    Asimov also quoted Alfred Noyes who wrote:
    “Fools have said
    That knowledge drives out wonder from the world,
    They’ll say it still, though all the dust’s ablaze with miracles at their feet”

    One of the superintelligent humans in Poul Anderson’s “Brainwave” thinks this to himself near the end of the book as he looks at a beach:

    “Gravitation (sun, moon, stars, the tremendous unity which is space-time)
    + Coriolis force (the planet turning, turning, on its way through miles and years)
    + Fluid friction (the oceans grinding, swirling, roaring between narrow straits, spuming and thundering over rock)
    + Temperature differential (sunlight like warm rain, ice and darkness, clouds, mists, wind and storm)
    + Vulcanism (fire deep in the belly of the planet, sliding of unimaginable rock masses, smoke and lava, the raising of new mountains with snow on their shoulders)
    + Chemical reaction (dark swelling soil, exhausted air made live again, rocks red and blue and ocher, life, dreams, death and rebirth and all bright hopes)
    = This Our World, and behold, she is very fair”

  2. #2 Tyro
    June 25, 2011

    Who are these people who imagine that anyone can really know everything, even if they tried? Even people who spend their lives learning and studying must focus on just a narrow slice of the world and will die ignorant of whole fields.

    I think that the only people who can talk about the precious mysteries of ignorance have never experienced the joy of learning.

  3. #3 Lou Jost
    June 25, 2011

    I still like Whitman’s poem. To me, it is only a reminder to go out and smell the roses, to experience the physicality, the sensuality, the artfulness of the actual things we study abstractly…

  4. #4 Don Cates
    June 25, 2011

    xkcd has something ro say about this
    < http://xkcd.com/877/>

  5. #5 Andrew
    June 25, 2011

    Don – you’re probably thinking of this xkcd http://xkcd.com/877/

  6. #6 eric
    June 25, 2011

    I can kinda see it, in a ‘birthday surprise’ sort of way. I think its fun to see the box and wonder what’s in it. The anticipation itself is enjoyable. Opening a present can sometimes be a letdown.

    I suppose the folks who pooh pooh scientific explanations are the ones who metaphorically don’t like their gift. However, that’s not science’s fault. Scientists didn’t pick out what’s in there – nature did that.

  7. #7 Physicalist
    June 25, 2011

    Brings to mind an afternoon of procrastination I spent a couple years ago:

    I spent hours watching the “Masked Magician” (or whatever his name was) giving away magician secrets on YouTube.

    There is a certain thrill to seeing the seemingly impossible and not knowing how it’s done; and that thrill certainly is lost when you learn the trick. But I’m inclined to think that in most circumstances, knowledge makes up for the loss.

    I wouldn’t want someone to tell me the secrets to the tricks before seeing a magic act, though. Rather as I wouldn’t want someone to tell me the surprise ending of a movie. There are times when knowledge isn’t the goal.

  8. #8 paul01
    June 25, 2011

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that Keats, Leigh Hunt et al were having a dinner when somebody proposed an ant-science toast. Apparently Wordsworth (of “we murder to dissect” fame) refused to join the toast and remained seated.

  9. #9 Tyro
    June 25, 2011

    Physicalist – I got a few videos from Banacheck which are meant to teach magic. They’re hugely interesting, far more than any magic show I can remember watching. There’s a huge amount of skill that goes into all aspects of the performance which I really didn’t grasp until I saw these. I could be a bad model as magic shows never really wowed me much in the first place.

    In the same sense, I’m generally less interested in the results of a scientific experiment than I am in understanding how it was done, why they designed it that way, what alternatives they considered (and ruled out), and all of the other background details. The results are important don’t get me wrong, but it’s all the rest which make the results count.

  10. #10 Russell
    June 25, 2011

    Andrew, I think that xkcd comic nails it. It takes amazingly little from nature to grab my attention: an odd weather pattern, a bug behaving oddly, a bird I don’t recognize, or even just observing how familiar plants respond to the current drought. Even familiar events are interesting, because nature rarely repeats exactly. Some find this fascinating. Some, not.

    I wonder what the psychology of that is?

  11. #11 Ron
    June 26, 2011

    Sometimes atheist assert that there is no proof that God exists. The only problem is that an atheist cannot logically make that claim.
    In order to state that there is no proof for God’s existence, the atheist would have to know all alleged proofs that exist in order to then state that there is no proof for God’s existence. But, since he cannot know all things, he cannot logically state there is no proof for God’s existence.
    At best, an atheist can only state that of all the alleged proofs he has seen thus far, none have worked. He could even say that he believes there are no proofs for God’s existence. But then, this means that there is the possibility that there is a proof or proofs out there and that he simply has not yet encountered one.
    Nevertheless, if there was a proof that truly did prove God’s existence, would the atheist be able to accept it given that his presuppositions are in opposition to the existence of God? In other words, given that the atheist has a presuppositional base that there is no God, in order for him to accept a proof for God’s existence, he would have to change his presuppositional base. This is not easy to do and would involve a major paradigm shift in the belief structure of the atheist. Therefore, an atheist is presuppositionally hostile to any proofs for God’s existence and is less likely to be objective about such attempted proofs.

  12. #12 John S. Wilkins
    June 26, 2011

    You forgot Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” (1611):

    And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
    The element of fire is quite put out,
    The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
    Can well direct him where to look for it.
    And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
    When in the planets and the firmament
    They seek so many new; they see that this
    Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
    ‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
    All just supply, and all relation;

  13. #13 Glenn Davey
    June 26, 2011

    Poetry is for morons anyway…

  14. #14 Strider
    June 26, 2011

    There’s a little-know passage which Doyle edited out of that passage:
    …To which Holmes replied, “Nothing in it? You didn’t think of it, did you, bitch?”…

  15. #15 Surgoshan
    June 26, 2011

    About a week ago, I was mildly flummoxed by the whale. I wondered where it had come from. “Whence the whale?” I idly mused. I figured that the forelimbs had become flippers and the rear limbs the flukes, but the blowhole had me completely at a loss and I simply couldn’t ascertain how it had transitioned from land to water. I considered the possibility of an otter form as an intermediate stage.

    After those few moments of pondering, I hopped onto google. I was immediately rewarded with a gem from wikipedia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_cetaceans

    It turned out I was wrong! The tail of the whale’s tale is that it came from the tale! The hind limbs simply disappeared. The blow hole is just the creature’s nose, and it slowly migrated up the snout as the creature adapted to a marine environment and needed to spend more time looking below it (as a whale does) than above it (as its semi-crocodilian-like-hunting-thing ancestor did at one point). And how did it progress? Not as an otter, but as a sort of sea cow, which was before that a hoofed river raccoon/crocodile thing.

    Hoofed? Yes! It turns out the whale was, in its infancy, a hoofed carnivore the size of a raccoon! How cool is that?! A hoofed carnivore! And it was the size of a raccoon! And for a while, it was an amphibious creature that fed by lurking in the water and bursting out at things like a crocodile and had eyes on top of its head and it was SO COOL.

    In short, I had a few minutes of idle curiosity followed by an hour of carefully reading a brief overview of the evolution of the whale, alternating between gleeful chortling as my imagination was seized by the bare bones of the information given and quiet bursts of wonderment as I thought about how many hours of work had gone into discovering all these facts and making the links between them.

    That was a hell of a day, and Keats can go fuck himself if he thinks bemused ignorance is in any way better.

  16. #16 Lenoxus
    June 26, 2011

    It’s quite gratifying to see people agree with me about magic tricks; now I don’t feel as guilty about that position of mine! I mean, it’s obviously wrong for an audience member to yell out how the trick’s done, but so is spoiling a story’s ending that way, yet we don’t give authors any grief for doing that by actually ending it. (Although I happen to be a fan of open endings, if they’re done right.) A magic show isn’t about being literally fooled into seeing impossible things any more than a CGI-laden fantasy film is.

    When I first played Myst, I used a guide to solve nearly all the puzzles. I didn’t see solving them as any sort of accompolishment on my part, or even feel any twinge of pride; I just wanted to find out what sort of things the creators had made, like with any other art form, and that was gratifying enough (not that I begrudge the work of actual puzzle-solving).

    There is one area in which I actually agree with Kreider that modern look-it-up-instantly devices have diminished something. Namely: the key role in modern conversation of arguing over trivia. I’m not talking about things like “What causes rainbows?” but “Who did the song ‘Safety Dance?’ “. As long as there are no personal attacks, it’s fun to see people have Seinfeldian coversations (WARNING: That’s a TvTrope) about how obviously the band was called Men With Hats and not Men Without Hats, oh yes, this is a matter of supreme importance. The card games Apples to Apples and Munchkin lend themselves to similar silliness.

    That said, the presence of the look-up devices may enhance the fun by being something you perversely refuse to use so as to keep arguing. And, of course, when you’re tired of the argument the devices will actually settle it, which means we don’t all experience that feeling of odd annoyance when we can’t remember some random tidbit.

  17. #17 Lenoxus
    June 26, 2011

    So apparently there’s a dwarf planet in our solar system called Pluto?

    Thanks, Tim Kreider. Thanks a lot.

  18. #18 MikeN
    June 26, 2011

    In Keats’s defense, he did also write:

    Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
    He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
    Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    (Yes, it should have said Balboa)

    I used this quote a few years back when everyone was watching the Mars lander. Some Arts Council type was complaining about all that money being wasted on “something of interest only to techno geeks and rock-lovers” instead of going to funding the arts, and I pointed out that millions opf people were watching because it was another freaking planet!!!!, reviving the sense of wonder often lost in this day of empty rooms, unmasde beds, and rotting sharks being foisted off as “art”

  19. #19 Tacroy
    June 27, 2011

    About magic: I’ve always believed that half the fun is trying to figure out how exactly they did it – just sitting there dumbfounded and saying “wow” is boring. If I wanted to do that all day, there’s several recreational drugs I could take.

  20. #20 Jon Wharf
    June 27, 2011

    On rainbows:

    One of the most amazing things to me is that when I see a rainbow as a single entity, it is actually composed of millions of individual rainbows, each one the refraction-split reflection of the sun in a single raindrop. And all aligned so that I see the same part of the rainbow in all the raindrops in a certain patch of sky. A few seconds later, it’s a different set of raindrops in that same patch of sky… it’s all breathtaking.

  21. #21 Ambitwistor
    June 27, 2011

    Of course, Feynman has weighed in as well:

    “I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, `Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, `I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.’ I think he’s kind of nutty. [...] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

    and

    “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is `mere’. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

  22. #22 Zayiflama
    June 27, 2011

    At best, an atheist can only state that of all the alleged proofs he has seen thus far, none have worked. He could even say that he believes there are no proofs for God’s existence. But then, this means that there is the possibility that there is a proof or proofs out there and that he simply has not yet encountered one.

  23. #23 eric
    June 27, 2011

    At best, an atheist can only state that of all the alleged proofs he has seen thus far, none have worked.

    A philosophical point with no practical use whatsoever. The alleged proofs of fairies in my garden have not worked so far either. IMO atheism doesn’t require the absolute theological certainty you seem to think is needed. Just like anyone else, at some point he/she makes the pragmatic decision to not live as if there are fairies in his garden until one actually shows up. The difference is, he pragmatically dismisses one more fairy than you do. And as the saying goes, when you really understand why you dismiss the existence of fairies in the garden, you may understand why the atheist dismisses the existence of yours.

  24. #24 itchy
    June 28, 2011

    Beautifully written, Jason.

  25. #25 Davetnw
    June 29, 2011

    How about this from TH’s grandson

    “Science has explained nothing; the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness.”
    Aldous Huxley

  26. #26 rob
    July 1, 2011

    Sometimes a skeptic assert that there is no proof that santa exists. The only problem is that a skeptic cannot logically make that claim.
    In order to state that there is no proof for santa’s existence, the skeptic would have to know all alleged proofs that exist in order to then state that there is no proof for santa’s existence. But, since he cannot know all things, he cannot logically state there is no proof for santa’s existence.
    At best, an skeptic can only state that of all the alleged proofs he has seen thus far, none have worked. He could even say that he believes there are no proofs for santa’s existence. But then, this means that there is the possibility that there is a proof or proofs out there and that he simply has not yet encountered one.
    Nevertheless, if there was a proof that truly did prove santa’s existence, would the skeptic be able to accept it given that his presuppositions are in opposition to the existence of santa? In other words, given that the skeptic has a presuppositional base that there is no santa, in order for him to accept a proof for santa’s existence, he would have to change his presuppositional base. This is not easy to do and would involve a major paradigm shift in the belief structure of the skeptic. Therefore, an skeptic is presuppositionally hostile to any proofs for santa’s existence and is less likely to be objective about such attempted proofs.

    there is more evidence for santa. santa leaves presents for kids.

  27. #27 Francesco
    July 4, 2011

    May I note the irony of the employee of a newspaper bewailing the easy access to information. Perhaps if Mr Kreider is doing anything but celibrating his limited attention span, he should reconsider his career choice to something that does not do exactly what he is complaing about.

  28. #28 386sx
    July 4, 2011

    May I note the irony of the employee of a newspaper bewailing the easy access to information.

    Well there we go. It was right in front of us the whole time but nobody noticed. Presto! :P

  29. #29 Tim Kreider
    July 6, 2011

    I’m not in the habit of responding to comments on the internet–my policy is, once I’ve written something my job’s over and it’s time to turn it over to the readers. But I did want to make clear, for those who haven’t actually read my essay, that it refers mainly to the increase in the availability of cultural information, and isn’t a screed against science or an apologia for ignorance. My reference to Pluto was a way of acknowledging that knowing is often, oddly, less fun than wondering. But perhaps bringing a scientific example into the argument is too fraught with misunderstanding. Anyway, I hope not to have ended up on Science’s Enemies List.

  30. #30 eric
    July 7, 2011

    My reference to Pluto was a way of acknowledging that knowing is often, oddly, less fun than wondering.

    But it’s not a zero-sum game. When I learn about A, I start wondering about A’. When I learn about A’, I start wondering about A”.

    There is always more to wonder about in the world. Knowing doesn’t take that away.

    Now, I will grant you that the explanation of a rainbow may take away from the wonder of the world for those who are unable or unwilling to wonder about optics. If you lack the imagination to wonder about A’, you might finding knowing A de-wondering. But the fault in this case does not lie in science or nature.

  31. #31 Luke Scientiae
    July 12, 2011

    Can we imagine a clearer argument for ignorance, than to say that understanding makes things less wonderful?

    We are far too accepting of the promotion of stupidity as a virtue. And this is very dangerous.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!