Contemplating Mystery

| June 30, 2014

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. –Albert Einstein

A few weeks ago I posted about Tolerating Ambiguity. Among the responses was a beautifully written note from photographer Jamey Pyles describing a conflict he struggles with:

How can I admire the mystery and truly capture that beauty when a huge part of me desires to unravel all the mystery and take action. But I think your words above to bring some peace to that. In some far off woods I wrote in my journal “knowledge corrupts beauty”.

Being the consummate pursuer of knowledge, this is a topic I thought about quite a bit at various points in my life, which is why Jamey’s note struck a chord with me. Whether he was aware of it or not, he is in the good company of the likes of Walt Whitman who mused, “You must not know too much or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free-margin, and even vagueness – ignorance, credulity – helps your enjoyment of these things.” and even Socrates, who admitted, “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”

Does knowledge corrupt beauty? It can. It can also open the doors to beauty so astoundingly immense that no human will ever be able to understand, let alone experience even a miniscule portion of it. So, which is it? You get to choose.

Even in this age when knowledge is more abundant and accessible than ever before, not one of us will ever possess perfect knowledge – there is always more to know. In fact, I argue that the more one knows, the more mystery and beauty become available to them. There was a time when the cycles of the sun and the stars were not known, and fantastic legends filled for knowledge. There were times when no human understood the causes of tides, when not all land was mapped, when flight was not available to humankind, when nobody knew about the vast expanses of the universe or the mysterious world of sub-atomic particles. Ancient cultures produced spectacular myths about these natural workings, until knowledge provided answers and the magic was gone. Or was it?

I contend that magic was never gone and never will be. Like so many things evolving over time, primitive notions may become moot through knowledge, but only to be replaced by greater and deeper mysteries. To someone living before Newtonian physics the concept of the moon’s gravity affecting the tides was beyond imagining and therefore the subject of legends. Now we know. To me, the knowledge that it’s the moon that causes the tides is more fantastic than any myth. And if you think that understanding gravity required a significant intellectual leap, try wrapping your mind around Relativity and Quantum Physics, Dark Matter, Dark Energy or the Big Bang, or even something as common as the human brain – the most complex thing we know of. We didn’t eliminate mystery, we just opened a small door to find it leading into something so vast we can’t even begin to imagine its extents.

Learn a little geology and a rock will never look the same way again, and the earth itself will tell you stories beyond your wildest dreams; learn a little botany and the every tree, flower and blade of grass will reward you with as much wonder as your mind can handle; learn a little about quantum mechanics and existence itself will astound you and challenge everything you ever believed reality to be; learn a little about neuroscience and psychology and you’ll realize how little we know about ourselves.

Increase in knowledge may make some mysteries less magical, but only to be replaced by far, far greater ones. Take a moment to contemplate how much is yet unknown and you’ll realize how unlikely it is that we will ever know it all. From the perspective of a bumbling creature scurrying on the crust of a clump of cosmic dust, knowledge and mystery are, for all practical purposes, infinite.

But, knowledge builds on other knowledge. In order to even be aware of greater mysteries one must make an ongoing commitment to remain in a constant state of learning, and to adopt the humility that comes with such knowledge. The more of it one possesses, the more insignificant they realize they are in the grand scheme. This may lead a person to one of two consequences: those too arrogant to accept such insignificance often reach for willful ignorance – a bubble in which they are more important than they know themselves to be, while those who embrace such insignificance are rewarded with the most intense sense of gratitude that a human being is capable of feeling: gratitude that such flawed creatures as us even possess consciousness, and are capable of reflecting, discovering, and taking joy in the immensity of it all, within the blink of a lifetime we are each afforded. As lyrically stated by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”

In their book The Grand Design, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow go as far as to claim that philosophy is dead, because philosophers are still stuck in the mundane over-analysis of the celebrated “human condition,” and have not kept up with advancements in mathematics and science as to be able to contemplate some of the most profound facts we now know about the nature of reality and the reality of Nature. This is not a new notion. It was perhaps best articulated by another brilliant physicist – Richard Feynman – who said, “To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature.” Feynman also described the ongoing debate between scientists and artists about understanding beauty, saying:

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

There were times when knowledge such as this was not available, and times when it was cause for persecution by those whose power was rooted in ignorance, and they are still among us. What enlightenment we accomplished is still threatened, it is ours to lose. We live in an age where science and mathematics often are feared and ridiculed. This is because knowledge does not corrupt beauty, it does the exact opposite: it reveals beauty on unimaginable scales and makes it available to all, independent of leaders and institutions. Knowledge can make life better, more beautiful, and far more mysterious than any human creation. It can bring people together based on facts rather than separate them based on prejudice and primitive tribalism.

So go ahead, open a book, Google questions you are curious about and take the time to read about, and study, them. The intricate, infinite web of mystery that binds reality itself will gradually reveal its secrets to you, and mysteries beyond your wildest dreams. But, like all worthwhile things, it requires work.

If knowledge corrupts beauty for you, it can only be because you are limited by your own knowledge. We all are, and always will be. The inevitable conclusion is that, in order to keep mystery alive and constant, one must always continue to learn and explore.

Another Day in the Higgs Field

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (4)

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  1. steve says:

    Once again the Sage of the Colorado Plateau has given us wonderful thoughts to ponder.

    A word of caution. The pursuit of knowledge can rob you of this moment.

  2. Misha says:

    I like the quote by Feynman, I’m with him on this one. I note only that, as a practical matter, I’ve met many in the sciences and technologies who overvalue the scientific and technological aspects of beauty in comparison to the aesthetic and humanities aspects of it. They are just as guilty, in this respect, as artists who fail to appreciate the scientific and technological.

  3. Guy Tal says:

    Very good points, Steve and Misha. I have known such people, too. If I may be so bold, I’ll say that such attitudes on both sides are the reasons we need art. I like this statement by painter Marc Chagall:

    “The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.”

  4. John Wall says:

    I wonder if Feynman’s artist friend was speaking more generally about scientists who view everything as essentially mechanical, or “nothing but.” As in, “That’s nothing but a flower. We know all about them.” It’s not knowledge that killed the beauty, but something else.

    There wouldn’t be anything special about keeping alive a sense of wonder in the world if it wasn’t so often turned into, or felt as, a dull thing.