Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mystery != Worth

...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.
-- John Keats, Lamia

Eliezer Yudkowsky over at Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong made an excellent point about this little poem fragment. As readers know, I am a fan of Keats, but I have to agree with Eliezer on this one:

You've got to admire that phrase, "dull catalogue of common things". What is it, exactly, that goes in this catalogue? Besides rainbows, that is?

Why, things that are mundane, of course. Things that are normal; things that are unmagical; things that are known, or knowable; things that play by the rules (or that play by any rules, which makes them boring); things that are part of the ordinary universe; things that are, in a word, real.

Now that's what I call setting yourself up for a fall.

At that rate, sooner or later you're going to be disappointed in everything - either it will turn out not to exist, or even worse, it will turn out to be real.

If we cannot take joy in things that are merely real, our lives will always be empty.

The wise are used to parrying all kinds of silly objections. But one of the silliest objections to the study of gender relations is that is somehow robs love of its mystery.

The argument goes like this: Love is a special thing, different from all other human interactions. And real love — and by extension, real happiness — can only come about by serendipity. The cardinal virtue is "being yourself." If you rationally observe people and make adjustments based on your observations, you are bringing the cold scalpel of the laboratory into the magical world of rainbows and unicorns. God forbid you should actually use the knife of rationality to analyze your own behavior. This is the cardinal sin of inauthenticity. Your "love" will be false and empty. So goes the argument.

Yudkowsky puts it well: all behavior is merely real. Not magical, not inherently mysterious. Everything in the world has an explanation. To some people this sounds hopelessly cold and lifeless. But it's the reality of the world. If it makes you despair, that's because you are so far wrapped up in fantasy that you can't take joy in the life all around you.

Imagine two best buddies, sitting a little way away from the campfire on a trip one night, looking up at the stars and talking about life. We've all been in this situation. The stars are numberless, stretching across the whole dome of the sky. Occasionally a metorite streaks the sparkling black expanse. The conversation turns to the vastness of the universe. They're both acutely aware of how tiny and insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. And yet, as they talk, they are filled with fraternal feeling. The depth of the universe surrounding them is strangely invigorating. They may be infinitely tiny compared to that stretch of stars, but they also feel part of it, deeply rooted in this grand, strange universe. All they have seen is the mere stars and yet they feel more connected to each other than before.

Now imagine the same scene 3000 years ago. It probably wasn't all that different, was it? But those two buddies 3000 years ago probably thought the stars were the corpses of the gods, or the ever-watching eyes of the One God, or crystal spheres of the angels, or some other nonsense.

Today we know that those sparkling lights are what are known as stars. "Cold, rational science" has taught us that they are actually gigantic spheres of flaming gas, in which take place massive nuclear reactions at an unimaginable pace. The stars are giant nuclear reactors, turning hydrogen into helium and generating epic magnetic fields and gravititational pull. That's the "hard science" of the stars. But that doesn't make us any less awe-inspired, does it? In fact, if you are anything like me, it might make it all the more awe-inspiring.

The science behind why women and men love each other is no less explainable than the science behind why the stars shine. Our species has been around for tens of thousands of generations, and before that our heritage goes back hundreds of millions of years to the first appearance of life on Earth. It's an epic heritage, and proud, and fascinating, and awe-inspiring. Through all those years and generations, we've developed our own, special, odd way of procreating. It's beautiful, it's fucked-up, and it's real. There's nothing "cold" about it. It's the most burning thing in the world, at least to a human like me.

The grand mistake is to believe that it is the mystery that makes things worthwhile. Keats' mistake is to be depressed about the discovery of why rainbows appear. But what's so depressing about the sun's light being refracted through a million tiny droplets of water into every lovely color of which it's composed? You are seeing the very structure of sunlight itself.

If you are married to the mystery of everything, you are necessarily living not in the real world, but only inside your own small head. Ignorance is not the real source of beauty. It is the things themselves that are beautiful.

In sex and romance, it is not confusion about what they might be that makes them beautiful and desirable. They are beautiful and desirable whether or not you are ignorant about them. Understanding them deeply can only enhance their beauty. If you think that deciphering the riddle of human sexuality is somehow "inauthentic," you are left with a pallid and foggy life, lived always in fear of reality. Real authenticity is looking at the stars, knowing that they are gigantic nuclear reactors thousands of light-years away and still being humbled. Welcome to the universe.

Next time: Sex and mystery.


  1. I find mystery in the fact that the more I know, the more I learn I must also be willing to break the "rules" of game at apropos's also akin to, "the more you know, the more you know that you don't know everything...". To whit, no matter how much you study, you realize that you will never have all the answers, and that inevitable mystery....keeps us coming back, despite our interventions to be rational/logical.

  2. I was going to respond, but I think that Richard Feynman says all that needs to be:

  3. Feynman is so great. I never knew he had such a thick New York accent though!

  4. His accent is one of the coolest parts about him.

  5. The "coldness" and "harshness" of Yudkowsky only applies if you take an objective view of reality. Adopt a subjective view of reality and suddenly everything can be explained a lot more elegantly. You're absolutely right on the mark with this article. When we learn more about things, we appreciate them *more*. Oh, and as for "just be yourself", that's the biggest load of crap in the world: if "yourself" was a dude who was sexually fulfilled, he wouldn't be looking for dating advice!

  6. Well put Dogen. The commentary of "beautiful things" on this post illustrates this masterfully. She was oh so depressed to read the male perspective, but later admited it (and I quote) "CHANGED HER LIFE FOREVER" what lovely irony.
    Silly girls...

  7. Feynman is so great. I never knew he had such a thick New York accent though!