Half of the awe

Half of the awe and beauty of the skeptical scientific worldview is not in what we know, but in how we know it.

The various religious or mystical worldviews do not compare. What, some wonderful proclamation is so because it was Told or Shown to someone now dead? Because it’s so in inky letters on some ancient parchment? Because a guru whispered it so? Because you thought, thought, and it suddenly became clear to you? Piffle! Not only are those chancy sources of knowledge, they’re prosaic, dull, uninspiring — “I heard that” — “I was told” — “I’ve been lead to believe that” — hah! What’s the worth of fictions with such hateful guts? Can you really get the thrill of a romance by jumping to the last page and digesting just that?

Science, on the other hand, does not spring out of empty air. Charles Darwin wasn’t handed an ancient Satanic scroll where evolution was written down. (Well, some fundamentalists would argue.) Lavoisier didn’t decide phlogiston was piffle and oxygen real on a whim, or because a high professor said so. Your local physics professional doesn’t consider Einstein smart because he scribbled an equation or two, but because experiments have again and again shown that those equations, artfully derived, describe something to which reality resonates in some deep way.

They all prodded at nature and at all else they wanted to know about; they examined, interrogated, distrusted, schemed, and made love to reality. The last of these is the most accurate, because science is a romance, a long tale of travails, quests, passions and discoveries, all driven by a desire to know how Mother Nature does those fine things she does. That romance has many chapters, and it makes us care not only because of the excitement and the convolutions of the plot, but because its actors are all of mankind, and the passion of its lead actors is genuine, their love of discovery and learning is real, and the goal, though distant, is a kiss as noble and beautiful as any nirvana: to understand the terrible and lovely machinery of the world, singing and turning all around and within each of us.

Parts of that quest may end in tragedy as well as in victory. Sometimes the truth is simply too far away, and long years must go by before the Ivory Tower conquers the Pink Castle of Real Allure. (No sexual undertones there at all, no sir!) Sometimes, as with Newton and Leibniz and their quarrel, there is unseemly swaggering and fistfights which do nothing but delay the plot. Sometimes a scientist gets what he has desired and wished, only to discover that too much desire can confuse and lead one’s fingers astray, and the lady or rake one kisses is a villain that will cause many a tear before the tale is done; less poetically, that’s homeopathy.

But when the discovery’s made, and when something’s clear and not anymore a mystery; when you know why the stars burn, when you know how all life is interrelated, and can formulate theories for the first spring of it all, and for the opening of the first flower which is the universe itself; when you know penicillin is good for you, and know why that is, exactly — and better still, when you know that’s not a mere guess, not a rumor, not a holy text, not a blind assertion, but something as true as anything you know can be — that is as sweet as anything in life, and a thousand times better than than hoary authorities and tepid mysteries. The true sense of wonder is that which rushes out to the universe to find out how it works, not that which stops quaking at the threshold, and there’s nothing but a reckless idiot’s thrill in a leap of faith. The truest awe, and the greatest thrill, is in learning to understand the world as it is, not in growing used to accepting assertions that do not explain.

To be shorter about it, of all quacks and charlatans mystics are the worst, for they rob half of the awe and the beauty from all their blinding fingers touch.

* * *

One more thing — there’s another pseudo-philosophical reason why mystical assertions are inferior, though they can and do entertain. All holy books and all pseudosciences and aircastled celestial conspiracies are just human constructions, and that shows in them: their powers work through human beings, sometimes for great good though more often for ill. No angel comes down to heal the sick; instead, a latter-day Samaritan has to do the work, inspired by the infections within his head.

That is great effect, but that still is no more than Meyer’s Twilight or Homer’s Odyssey — exciting, yes, but still stuff that just springs out of mankind’s collective frontal lobe and illuminates nothing beyond our interpersonal relations. There’s so much more in the world, and there’s so much more that the things that have no frontal lobes can offer for our comfort and sense of aesthetics. (Er, no, I’m not speaking of Cthulhoid things, but of penicillin and gravity assists, finely ground eyeglass lenses and the beauty of the dance of stellar evolution.)

As angels don’t seem to be coming down anytime soon, it would seem to be better to make our sweet fictions to be about the glory and capacity of the human being, and not about external phantoms. That is all our ghost stories have ever been able to bring out: the human as an angel, or the human as a demon. The things themselves have never materialized beyond that; all the deeds of mankind have been done by our best or worst parts; or more often by the great blundering inertia in between. As spirits plus human hands have done no better than human hands alone, I’d say it would be better to forget about the spirits and instead make sure the hands are guided by an eye that looks outwards as well as in.

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