I started a new book today. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I tend to start many more books than I ever finish.
The book I started reading today is called Darwin Loves You. Unlike most things I read, I’m not reading this one for any particular reason, no article I’m writing, no book I’m researching. Instead, the title caught my eye on a recent trip to the library (to get books for articles I’m writing and books I’m researching).
So I started reading and the author right away talks about the way Darwinism has been viewed by social commentators through history. One in particular, Max Weber, said that a “rational scientific outlook expels the meaning from life.” The author is trying to disprove this notion, and in that I’m already in agreement with him. But even so it is almost shocking for me to read these words actually put to paper. Do people really think this way?
The author talks a lot about mystery, and how it has been suggested again and again that science in general and Darwinism in particular have removed the mystery from life. But it is rare in science for the solution of a mystery to be the end of the story. Instead, the solution leads to both deeper understanding and deeper, more profound mysteries. So when James Clerk Maxwell solved the mystery of light – what is light? It is a vibrating electric and magnetic field – his answer led to deeper questions. Why do electricity and magnetism affect one another as they do? The answer to that question led to Einstein’s special relativity. What is the nature of this electromagnetic wave when it encounters matter? The answer to that led to the photoelectric effect, quantum weirdness, and wave-particle duality.
I wish I could sing this to the world. Mysteries do not become less interesting when they are solved. History shows us that exactly the opposite is true.
BUT (and this is what I really want to say, the point of this blog entry) . . .
even if it were true, even if it were, wouldn’t we have to live our lives as if it weren’t?
Here’s an example. Suppose you buy an old house with many rooms. Each day you explore a new room, discovering uncharted territory. Eventually you come to the last room in the house. Loving adventure and mystery as you do, you decide not to enter that room, to leave it mysterious. You never enter that room, and tell yourself how good you are at preserving mystery.
Aren’t you exactly the same as someone who explores every room in the house? Aren’t you just as bereft of mystery? If you never try to solve the mystery, if you never go into that room, or do anything to find out what’s inside, aren’t you in exactly the same position as one who has no rooms left to explore?
Maybe there’s just something wrong with me. I remember as a kid being fascinated with cryptozoology – you know, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and such. I wanted to KNOW, are they real? Then I’d talk to adults, or maybe read in a book, expressing the opinion that, “Isn’t it better to have a little mystery in life?” NO! It’s not! If you decide that, then it’s not a mystery any more, because you’re not looking for the answer. You have to look; you have to try to solve a mystery or else it ceases to be mysterious.
The classic example of the piece of information you wouldn’t want to know is the time and place of your own death. This strikes me as particularly stupid. First of all, it’s a ridiculous example. If we did live in a completely deterministic universe, then the fact that I knew this information would be part of that universe, and clearly I would take steps to avoid whatever fate held for me. If it’s a traffic accident, I don’t drive that day. If it’s colon cancer, I get it looked at immediately.
But we don’t live in a completely deterministic universe. Quantum weirdness rules such a universe out. Still, if someone could glean from all the crazy connections of this world that I am most likely to die by X, then I could actively try to change the connections to make X less likely. That information can do nothing but help me.
There is real mystery in the world – What is consciousness? Why do all electrons have the same mass and charge? Why that mass and charge? Why was entropy so incredibly low in the early universe? Will the Cubs ever win the World Series? – but looking for the answers to these mysteries doesn’t sap them of their strength. Rather, the act of looking is what makes them mysteries. Solving them won’t take away the mystery, but only add new and deeper mysteries.
But even if it wouldn’t, we have to live as if it would.