Why is Wonder?

Sometimes I am accosted by the strangest questions; they remind me of the unanswerable ‘why’ questions that so often bubble out of 3 year olds -the only difference, I suppose, is that I would no longer be satisfied with the unadorned ‘just because’ answers I’m sure I used to get from my frustrated parents.

But it seems to me that once I retired from the practice of Medicine and was no longer required to answer other people’s questions, it was inevitable that I would have to ask some tricky ones of my own -questions I would be forced to answer for my self. And then I realized that I was no longer the authority figure I once thought I was because the questions I ended up asking were more abstract. Less likely to admit of an easy solution.

Perhaps that’s what Retirement is designed for, though: imponderables. It is close to the denouement of a life and any loose threads of the clothes you once wore are carefully trimmed away and cleaned in preparation for the final scene.

My most recent attempt at cutting away loose strands concerned wonder. Why is wonder? I asked myself one evening, as I sat on a beach watching the cooling sun slowly sinking into the ocean. But when no answers surfaced and I turned to leave, a rim of clouds still glowed orange on the horizon like embers on a dying campfire and I found I couldn’t move. Why did I find myself so filled with awe, so taken with a scene I must have admired in countless versions in magazines or coffee-table books? Why did the experience stop time? Why did I hold my breath? And, what purpose could it possibly serve?

Different from mere beauty, which is shallow in comparison, wonder seems more spiritual -more intense– and less describable in words. It is a feeling, a wordless experience of awe. And yet, ineffable as it may be, is it just a curiosity, or more like an emergent phenomenon: a synergism of factors each of which, taken by itself, is not at all unique? And if so, why would their collective presence have such a major effect on me?

I am far from a religious person, but I am reminded of an idea I found somewhere in the writings of the philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich, years ago. I was wondering what prayer was, apart from an attempt to request a favour from whatever deity you had been taught was in charge. It seemed to me unlikely that words alone could establish any real communication with the god; more was required to make prayers feel like they were being heard. If I understood Tillich, he seemed to imply that prayer was -or should be- like the ephemeral, but almost overwhelming sense of awe felt on seeing, say, the array of burning clouds that could still bathe in the sun setting behind a now-silhouetted mountain. An unknitted communion…

Is that, then, what wonder is: an unintended prayer…? An unasked question? I happened across an essay by Jesse Prinz, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, who attempted an examination of wonder, and felt that it shared much in common with Science, Religion, and even Art: https://aeon.co/essays/why-wonder-is-the-most-human-of-all-emotions

The experience of wonder, he writes, seems to be associated with certain bodily sensations which ‘point to three dimensions that might in fact be essential components of wonder. The first is sensory: wondrous things engage our senses — we stare and widen our eyes… The second is cognitive: such things are perplexing because we cannot rely on past experience to comprehend them. This leads to a suspension of breath, akin to the freezing response that kicks in when we are startled… Finally, wonder has a dimension that can be described as spiritual: we look upwards in veneration.’

That may be the ‘what’ of wonder -its component parts- but not the ‘why’; his explanation seemed more of a Bayeux Tapestry chronicling events, not why they existed in the first place. I dug deeper into the essay.

Prinz goes on to mention the ‘French philosopher René Descartes, who in his Discourse on the Method (1637) described wonder as the emotion that motivates scientists to investigate rainbows and other strange phenomena.’ Their investigations, in turn produce knowledge. ‘Knowledge does not abolish wonder; indeed, scientific discoveries are often more wondrous than the mysteries they unravel. Without science, we are stuck with the drab world of appearances.’ Fair enough -Science can not only be motivated by wonder, it also contributes to it.

‘In this respect,’ Prinz writes, ‘science shares much with religion… like science, religion has a striking capacity to make us feel simultaneously insignificant and elevated.’ Awe, an intense form of wonder, makes people feel physically smaller than they are. ‘It is no accident that places of worship often exaggerate these feelings. Temples have grand, looming columns, dazzling stained glass windows, vaulting ceilings, and intricately decorated surfaces.’

Art, too, began to partake of the sublime, especially when it parted company from religion in the 18th century. ‘Artists began to be described as ‘creative’ individuals, whereas the power of creation had formerly been reserved for God alone.’ Artists also started to sign their paintings. ‘A signature showed that this was no longer the product of an anonymous craftsman, and drew attention to the occult powers of the maker, who converted humble oils and pigments into objects of captivating beauty, and brought imaginary worlds to life.’

Interestingly, then, ‘science, religion and art are unified in wonder. Each engages our senses, elicits curiosity and instils reverence. Without wonder, it is hard to believe that we would engage in these distinctively human pursuits.’ Mere survival does not require any of these, and yet they exist. ‘Art, science and religion are all forms of excess; they transcend the practical ends of daily life. Perhaps evolution never selected for wonder itself… For most of our history, humans travelled in small groups in constant search for subsistence, which left little opportunity to devise theories or create artworks. As we gained more control over our environment, resources increased, leading to larger group sizes, more permanent dwellings, leisure time, and a division of labour. Only then could wonder bear its fruit. Art, science and religion reflect the cultural maturation of our species.’

‘For the mature mind, wondrous experience can be used to inspire a painting, a myth or a scientific hypothesis. These things take patience, and an audience equally eager to move beyond the initial state of bewilderment. The late arrival of the most human institutions suggests that our species took some time to reach this stage. We needed to master our environment enough to exceed the basic necessities of survival before we could make use of wonder.’

Maybe, then, that is the answer to the ‘why’ of wonder. Perhaps it’s a fortunate -some might say providential- byproduct of who we are. Not inevitable, by any means, and not meant for any particular purpose, and yet, however accidental, it was the spur that pricked the sides of our dreams, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

I’m not so sure it’s even that complicated, though. It seems to me that wonder is more of an acknowledgement, than anything else: an acknowledgment that we are indeed a part of the world around us; a tiny thread in a larger pattern. And every once in a while, when we step back, we catch a glimpse of the motif and marvel at its complexity. It is, then, an acknowledgment of gratitude that we are even a small part of it all… Yes, a prayer, if you will.

Am I anybody’s keeper?

Is it possible to understand the world as if you were another person? Or, no matter the effort, would you still be imprisoned within yourself -feeling what you assume you would feel if you were in the same circumstance as her? That what you manage to sample of her condition is inevitably filtered through your own experience is far from profound, of course, but it is often buried within the empathy you think you are expressing. Empathy is not really how you feel about something; it is about how the other person feels.

But of course you are not the other person, nor have you lived the same life as her. Perhaps, in fact, it is the other way around: the more she has experienced similar things to you -the more like you she is- the more you can empathize with her feelings. Still, this merely reduces empathy to a set of feelings; I suspect there is more to it than this, however. An integral component of empathy is understanding. Much like the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, surely the central question for empathy would be to ask what it would be like to be the person in question -not just how to feel like her. It seems to me there must be a cognitive, as well as emotional side to empathy.

I found an insightful essay on this multimodal requirement as exemplified in the fictional character of Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova. She felt that Holmes seemed to be able to put himself in the victim’s mind, if not necessarily in their heart. https://aeon.co/essays/empathy-depends-on-a-cool-head-as-much-as-a-warm-heart

As she observes, according to Holmes ‘whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things… It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities… The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.’

But, how can that be? For Holmes, his ability to understand the problem is based on his creative imagination. ‘In fact, his success stems from the very non-linearity and imaginative nature of his thinking, his ability to engage the hypothetical just as he might the physical here-and-now… So Holmes is an expert at the very thing that makes empathy possible in the first place – seeing the world from another’s point of view. He is entirely capable of understanding someone else’s internal state, mentalising and considering that state.’ But not just that.

An emotional lack may permit a relative freedom from prejudice. ‘[R]ecent research bears this out. Most of us start from a place of deep-rooted egocentricity: we take things as we see them, and then try to expand our perspectives to encompass those of others. But we are not very good at it… Even when we know that someone’s background is different from our own, and that we should be wary of assuming we can understand their situation as though it were our own, we still can’t shake off our own preconceptions in judging them. The more cognitively strained we are (the more we have going on mentally), the worse we become at adjusting our egocentric views to fit someone else’s picture of the world… Our neural networks might be mirroring another’s suffering, but largely because we worry how it would feel for us. Not so Holmes. Because he has worked hard to dampen his initial emotional reactions to people, he becomes more complete in his adjustment, more able to imagine reality from an alternative perspective.’

So, in a way, sometimes it’s actually their difference from us that allows us to judge what the other person is going through more accurately. ‘Empathy it seems, is not simply a rush of fellow-feeling, for this might be an entirely unreliable gauge of the inner world of others.’

In fact, ‘The ability to see the world from another set of eyes, to experience things vicariously, at multiple levels, is training ground for such feats of imagination and reason that allow a Holmes to solve almost any crime, an Einstein to imagine a reality unlike any that we’ve experienced before (in keeping with laws unlike any we’ve come up with before), and a Picasso to make art that differs from any prior conception of what art can be.’ Imagination, and emotion; there’s a commonality: ‘to be creative, just as to be empathetic, we must depart from our own point of view… The emotional element in empathy is itself a limited one. It is selective and often prejudicial – we tend to empathise more with people whom we know or perceive to be like us.’

I was talking to a friend in a grocery store lineup the other day, masked and socially distanced of course, when an elderly  man with his mask hanging from his chin moved into the space ahead of her. He made no apology, nor did he seem to understand the need for distancing in a line. He’d merely seen a space and moved into it.

“The poor old dear,” I muttered, my voice muffled by my mask. I’m not sure if she heard my words, but my friend’s eyes first saucered in surprise at my reaction, and then narrowed into an angry scowl at the intrusion as she turned to glare at him.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, addressing the old man, ‘The line starts back there…” And she pointed past a number of people standing behind her.

He turned his head slowly and stared at her for a moment. “There was a space in front of you, though…”

“As there is supposed to be,” she interrupted before he could finish his sentence. She sounded angry –righteously angry.

The only indication that he had understood her anger was to shrug and turn his head away again.

“And you are not wearing your mask, sir,” she continued, her anger obviously unsated.

His response was to turn and point to the mask hanging from his chin and smile. “I can’t breathe very well through it,” he said in a soft, firm voice.

I risked a step forward. “He’s just an old man, Janice,” I said, trying to talk softly, but the sound was no doubt further muffled by the thick mask I was wearing. “He’s probably a little confused. Let it go…”

Janice stared at me for a moment. “Then he shouldn’t be shopping on his own, G,” she said, shaking her head as if she couldn’t understand why I would be defending him. “These are dangerous times…”

I blinked, similarly wondering why she was so adamant.

“There are rules, G!” I could see by the movement of her mask that she had sighed. “We can’t just bend the rules because we feel sorry for someone.”

“Maybe not, but it would create less of a fuss for people in the line if we just let him proceed.” I looked at the line behind me and nobody else seemed upset by his action -if they had even noticed. “And he doesn’t seem bothered by them either…”

She continued to stare at me -blankly at first, uncomprehendingly.

Then, when I smiled behind my mask, I think she saw the wrinkles from my eyes because her aggressive posture seemed to relax. “Well, maybe just this once, eh?” she said, and shrugged.

Empathy in action…